Glenn Beck: preacher, professor, pundit, patriot, performer

Ed Ross Contributor
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What are we to make of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28? Was it a religious revival meeting? Was it a Tea Party rally? Was it a patriotic demonstration? Or was it simply a massive outdoor Glenn-Beck-Program fieldtrip? The event that drew upwards of 300,000 people to the National Mall and sent shockwaves through Washington, DC, and across the country was all the above and more.

Despite all the publicity and organizational efforts that preceded the rally, people were unsure about what exactly to expect. Beck intentionally played his cards close to the vest; and he only recently incorporated an explicit religious message into his broadcasts about the event.

As controversial as Beck is, however, the rally received little live media coverage. It was broadcast only on CSPAN and streaming video on the “Restoring Honor” Facebook page. What media coverage it received, including on Fox News, was carefully balanced with reports on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s much smaller “counter rally” at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. Both rallies took place on the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and Sharpton has accused Beck of attempting to hijack MLK’s legacy.

The rally’s effectiveness as a religious revival is difficult to judge. Beck wasn’t attempting to make converts, swell congregations, or raise money for churches. The charity that benefited from the rally, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF), raises money to send the children of special operations military personnel killed in combat or training to college.

Beck, more a political commentator and self-taught history professor, is no televangelist. He’s known principally for his criticisms of progressivism, President Barack Obama, and the people Obama has surrounded himself with in his administration and over the past 20 years. Beck is a major pain in the neck to the White House. An average of two million people a day watch the Glenn Beck program on Fox News, and his radio program is the third most listened to in the country.

People who watch and listen Beck, a Mormon, understand that he’s not proselytizing. He’s trying to refocus Americans on the religious underpinnings of the founding fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution. America, he frequently reminds us, was founded on the idea that God granted us our “unalienable Rights,” not government. We are “saved” as individuals, not collectively, contrary to what President Obama has frequently stated.

We can describe the overwhelming majority of those who participated in the rally as Tea Party supporters, but the rally was largely devoid of Tea Party signs, chants, and slogans. The intent to fire up people and get them to vote in November may have been implicit; making it explicit was unnecessary. The message was abundantly clear, especially to Democrats. It’s arguably impossible to assemble a few hundred thousand people without sending a political message.

Politicians, however, largely ignored the rally. Democrats, disdainful of Beck, didn’t want to give it any publicity and help swell the numbers of people who turned out. Republicans didn’t want to do anything that might alienate moderates and Independents in the run up to the November elections. And Beck said he wanted this to be a non-political event. He only invited Sarah Palin to participate, not as a politician but as the mother of a combat veteran. (Palin’s son, Track, served in Iraq.)

Patriotism was on full display at the “Restoring Honor” rally. Sarah Palin’s speech highlighted the heroic deeds of former Navy SEAL Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, Marine Sergeant James “Eddie” Wright, and Vietnam War POW Air Force Colonel Tom Kirk. Beck’s plea for contributions to the SOWF at the rally raised over $5.5 million. Both Beck and Palin made numerous references to the honor of American men and women in uniform and the sacrifices they make.

As for the rally being a massive outdoor Glenn Beck program, it was certainly that also — minus the chalkboards. Beck, who has described himself as a “clown with a TV program,” is a gifted entertainer. Although he sometimes comes unhinged on his radio and TV programs and is prone to tears and emotion, he knows exactly what he’s doing and how to captivate an audience.

What impact will the “Restoring Honor” rally have on the November elections and American politics? That’s difficult to predict. It’s certainly a reflection of the pent-up frustration conservatives have with the direction the country is going. As conservative William Kristol noted on Sunday, it demonstrates that Tea Party conservatives are concerned about more than deficits and taxes. They are deeply patriotic and religious; and they are receptive to calls for a return of honor, integrity and traditional American values — a message Beck delivers almost daily.

No doubt, many also came to the National Mall on Saturday simply because they are anxious to be part of the political tsunami that’s headed for the polls in November and Beck’s rally gave them an opportunity to give the nation a preview. They’re part of the changing template for American domestic politics. New communications tools — talk radio, cable TV, the Internet, and the reinvention of old-fashioned rallies — are changing the way activists, politicians, and voters communicate with each other. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are demonstrating how effective people who master these tools can be.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.