A crowd estimated to be around 300,000 gathered on the national Mall Saturday for a three-hour rally led by Fox News personality Glenn Beck, who held largely true to his promise to keep the event nonpolitical and instead conducted something of an old-style religious revival meeting that meandered between calls for moral renewal, racial unity, self-government, and support for the U.S. military.
Beck, who shed a neck tie midway through the event and appeared to be wearing a bulletproof vest, was a constant presence onstage during the rally, dominating the message and speaking nonstop for the entire third hour. The only other major speaker was former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who devoted most of her 17-minute speech to honoring military veterans and telling their stories.
That left Beck as essentially the host of his own three-hour special on the Mall, with a historic crowd lending him a dramatically enlarged platform. Beck showed his talent for oratory and cemented his place as a notable and unusual figure in American political history, and along the way raised what he said was $5.5 million for the families of special operations soldiers killed or wounded in the line of duty. But Beck’s message throughout likely came as a surprise to many who don’t usually watch his show, who see him as mostly a loud and dramatic critic of President Obama.
The Beck rally was a mixture of religion, public relations and political philosophy. After predicting the beginning of another Great Awakening at a Kennedy Center event on Friday night, Beck strode back and forth across the massive but spartan stage set, keeping his rhetoric long on motivational generalities but short on specifics.
Arguably, the energy in the country that drove so many people to attend the rally came from concern about government spending and debt, as well as its size and its growing involvement in the private sector and individual lives. But Beck, who is a Mormon, titled the Saturday rally “Restoring Honor” and used that theme to talk about the need for Americans to return to God themselves as individuals and live upright, moral lives.
“If we want our country to survive, we must begin to look within ourselves,” Beck said. “To restore America we must restore ourselves.”
Beck’s presupposition was that America is at a crisis point and its citizens are in danger of losing their power for self-government because they have grown lazy and apathetic and allowed it to atrophy.
“America is great because America is good … America is only what we choose her to be, we as individuals must be good so America can be great,” he said. “We’ve grown tired. We’ve grown weak. We’re dividing ourselves. There is growing hatred in the country. We must be better than what we’ve allowed ourselves to become. We must get the poison of hatred out of us. No matter what anyone might say or do, no matter what anyone smears or lies or throws our way … we must look to God and look to love.”
Beck made clear that he was not advocating for any one religion. He brought a group of clergy onto the stage and encouraged those at the rally and watching online or on TV to “go to your churches, your synagogues, your mosques, anyone who is not preaching hate and division, anyone who is not teaching to kill another man.”
“These men and women don’t agree on fundamentals. They don’t agree on everything that every church teaches,” Beck said of the clergy behind him on stage. “What they do agree on is God is the answer.”
But most of the prayers offered and religious messages delivered by the clergy who spoke, as well as by Beck himself, focused on Jesus Christ and an explicitly Christian message.
Beck also appeared to go to great strides to disarm critics who said he should not have held the rally on the same spot in front of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech 47 years ago on the same day. Several times throughout the rally, including in his opening monologue, Beck implied that his critics were dividing the country.
“For too long, this country has wandered in darkness and we have wandered in darkness in periods from the beginning,” he said. “We have had moments of brilliance and moments of darkness. But this country has spent far too long worried about the scars and thinking about the scars and concentrating on the scars.”
“Today we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things we have accomplished and the things we can do tomorrow,” he said. “We have a choice today to either let those scars crush us or redeem us.”
Alveda King, the niece of the civil rights leader, also gave a short speech defending Beck and his cause, and said that America’s problems with financial debt are due to a deficit of character.
“If Uncle Martin could be here today, he would surely commend us for giving honor where honor is due,” King said. “Forty-seven years ago, Uncle Martin compared our nation’s promise of equal protection to a check marked insufficient funds. Today in more than one sense, America is nearly bankrupt. Our material gains seem to be going the way of our moral losses.”
King sent out an e-mail during the rally that criticized abortion in particular, and defended herself from critics who said she has “hijacked” her uncle’s legacy.
“How can I hijack something that belongs to me? I am an heir to the King Family legacy,” she said.
Beck, who was surrounded at all times by a trio of bodyguards in black suits and dark sunglasses, also brought a stream of African-American and Native American leaders on to the stage to offer prayers and songs, as well as to receive awards. For example, Beck awarded a medal of faith to the Rev. C.L. Jackson, a black minister from Texas.
And a group of black women sang spiritual songs, giving a feel of an African-American church service on stage. The emphasis on unity also seemed aimed at combating the idea that the Tea Party movement is fueled by racist or violent sentiment.
The crowd itself was overwhelmingly white, to the point that one participant in the rally remarked about the presence of one black man among the few thousand up front near the stage on the south side of the Reflecting Pool.
“The courage by this black guy up here to come out is unbelievable,” said Adam Washburn, of Oceanside, California, who said he was “honored” to have African-Americans participating in the rally.
Washburn, a 47-year old plumber, said he was concerned about racial tension – “I’ve seen more tension recently than I’ve seen in my lifetime” – and said he thought Democrats have taken advantage of the black vote.
“The whole Democratic and progressive movement has lied to them and tried to destroy those people, and keep them under their thumb,” he said. “If you create a welfare state, you’re ruining those people’s lives.”
Washburn was part of a small group of attendees who were first to show up on the Mall for the rally, almost 48 hours beforehand. The group spent two nights sleeping under the stars on portable camping chairs. They did not seem surprised or disappointed, even beforehand, that the event looked to be more of a multi-faith tent revival than a red meat political rally.
“I think [Beck] reached deep into our hearts and past money and politics to where God dwells,” said Katherine McArthur, a 58-year old retired real estate agent and mother of two from Newport Beach, California. “It has to do with God, not Obama, not government.”
McArthur, who said she tapes Beck’s show and watches it nearly every day, echoed many of his points about a nation in crisis, and said her generation allowed it to reach such a state of affairs.
“We grew up with so much freedom. We were handed freedom without a lot of work for it. Everything has come so easy to us. Now, there’s the recognition of the potential of losing it,” she said.
But McArthur did express some uneasiness at the prospect of a religious rally led by a Mormon.
“I wrote [Beck] an e-mail. Talk about revisionist: what about Joseph Smith?” she said, referring to the founder of the Mormon faith.
Tom Jones, who owns a small landscaping business in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said an awakening has occurred in the country, though he described something more civic and cultural than religious.
“We were all up on our cloud nines. Had our flat screens. God bless America. Support the troops. We didn’t know nothing. We didn’t read our Constitution,” he said. “Then things started going awry, during the Bush administration. Then Obama came in.”
“We’re going to pray and build this ship back up from the foundation,” he said.
As for politics and the approaching midterm elections, none in the crowd had much good to say about either political party. Jones said Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of California, are “the enemy within.”
But as for the Republican Party, Jones said: “If the Republicans don’t do what we say, we’ll vote them out too.”
“RINO’s beware,” Jones hollered, referring to the common term used now among the Tea Party: Republican In Name Only. “We’re going RINO-hunting!”