In a Washington Post blog, Amarnath Amarasingam offers some thoughts about how Glenn Beck’s rally is connected to the concept of civil religion, developed first by Robert Bellah and debated by sociologists of religion since. While invoking religious terminology and genres in common in political rhetoric, Amarasingam suggests it can be used for good or ill:
Robert Bellah noted long ago that American civil religion was capable of holding the United States to a higher moral standard. He also warned that it has often been used “as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions.” In other words, civil religion could be a powerful tool to rally the masses and forge a new path, or it could drive the country into a narcissistic and idolatrous worship of itself. The choice must be made by America’s newly self-appointed high priest.
Of course, Beck’s words were much more specific than many cases of civil religion where leaders make bland and non-specific references.
Sociologist Michael Lindsay examines Glenn Beck’s speech from this past weekend and argues Beck illustrates what Evangelicals do so well:
With those seven words, Glenn Beck accomplished two complementary but seemingly opposite objectives, much like [Rick] Warren does at the outset of his [The Purpose Driven Life] book. He diminished the crowd’s sense that they can do anything ultimately important while simultaneously endowing their attempts with a sense of sacred purpose. It’s as if Beck said to the throngs, “Put away your placards, and give up on your political machinations. We’re not in control.” But using the exact same words, he was exhorting, “We have a bigger obligation to play whatever role we are given in this larger divine drama.”
This relativizing/sacralizing of actions is precisely why evangelicals are so successful in American politics.
What Beck’s call to action will lead to remains to be seen. But, as Lindsay suggests, his uniting of faith and political action may very well influence the Republican Party in the near future.