Glenn Beck’s path to unity a rocky road

Jon Ward Contributor
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Glenn Beck’s rally in Washington Saturday was a picture of unity on stage, but that wasn’t easy to accomplish, according to interviews with Christian ministers involved in planning the event.

Beck, a Fox News personality, faced major objections and concerns within the evangelical community prior to the event due to his status as a Mormon who planned to lead a spiritual rally involving tens of thousands of Protestant Christians. Those concerns remain for numerous top Christian leaders.

Beck also had to overcome major reservations held by black ministers he recruited to attend and appear on stage with him. Some African-American leaders rejected the invitation, fearing that they would be used as props to give Beck cover after he came under criticism from some black leaders for holding the event on the same spot Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech 47 years prior.

But African-American leaders involved in the event, and some who decided not to come, said they were happy with Beck’s rally and the way that black ministers were involved.

“When the rally went off, the concerns I had were done away with. I might have had some concerns initially, but those concerns were dropped,” said Rev. William Owens, chairman of the Coalition of African-American Pastors, a 72-year old leader who organized with King in Memphis during the Civil Rights movement.

Privately in conversations with other leaders, Owens was one of the most vociferous critics of Beck in the days leading up to the event. Though he was invited to attend by Alveda King, the niece of the civil rights leader who spoke at the rally, he refused to attend.

“The initial concern was he would have just a few black people, just to show off, just a few,” said Owens, who is conservative and whose son is heavily involved in speaking at Tea Party events. “From the sound of it, what I heard was they were using blacks as tokens, as camouflage.

“But I didn’t see that happen. I think Glenn was very sincere,” Owens said. “Glenn Beck told the truth, very candid, very honest. It was all inclusive. So I didn’t have any problem with it.”

One African-American leader who was instrumental in recruiting clergy to come said in an interview that Beck and the rally’s organizers began reaching out to black pastors in earnest in May. Much of the outreach from Beck began with Alveda King, who then worked through close friends of hers.

Dean Nelson, the vice chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a D.C.-based black conservative group, was one of King’s closest friends that she persuaded to help her recruit other African-American ministers. He then worked with her to bring in others.

Nelson said in an interview that he was nonetheless concerned about the appearance of numerous African-American ministers on stage at an event with an estimated crowd of 100,000 to 300,000 people that was almost entirely white.

“I said several times that this was going to appear that this was simply window dressing. I was concerned about that, and I’m certain that many people have made those assertions,” he said.

Ultimately, Nelson concluded that he was proud of his involvement in the rally, even though he said he faced questions the day afterward from members of a black church he spoke to.

“I know that they needed and wanted this event, because of the date that it was on, that they needed this event to look and feel different from the way their opponents were characterizing it,” Nelson said. “I think that they did a good job. I left that event feeling like as a Christian that God was honored by what went on on that stage.”

Alveda King, in an e-mail exchange, took umbrage at the thought that she and other black leaders were used.

“I wasn’t window dressing, and Beck asked for Black Leaders to participate because I wanted the support from the Black Community. Glenn was blessed by our presence,” King wrote. “We were not window dressing, we were there to pray for America because we too are Americans!”

Somewhat ironically, the strongest concerns and criticisms that remain after the Beck rally are from evangelical ministers, who worry that in a religious rally where a Mormon points attendees to an undefined God, the essence of the Christian message may be blurred and confused.

“I agree with his political agenda. But when we start talking about the religious need in America, the spiritual need, and he identifies as something other than an evangelical Christian, there then becomes a disconnect which we’ve got to work through,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

“The only thing I can safely say is that I am processing, because I don’t want to say anything that would appear to be denigrating toward it or anything negative and I don’t necessarily want to endorse it. I just don’t know yet,” said Perkins, who said the only way he would bless the event would be if he talked to Beck directly and was satisfied with his explanation of his motivations and goals.

Perkins is the most prominent evangelical leader – one who is deeply involved in matters of both faith and politics – to raise a red flag about the Beck rally on theological grounds. Others contacted by The Daily Caller, such as California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, declined to comment on the matter. A spokeswoman said that Warren is specifically avoiding comment on the Beck rally.

Evangelical leader Chuck Colson also offered a mixed reaction Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m never going to discourage people from gathering on the Mall to express their concern with what’s happening in government, and to seek religious renewal in American life. That’s great. And I’m not against that,” Colson said. “But I think this reflects badly on the church when we aren’t doing it in the name of the church … it has all the earmarks of evangelical movement with a non-evangelical leader, or non orthodox leader. It is a reflection on the church that we’re not more discerning.”

Charismatic Christian leader Lou Engle, who is holding a rally similar to Beck’s in Sacramento, California on Saturday that is explicitly Christian, said “God is using [Beck] for a moral surge in America.”

“So I rejoice in his voice to stir the nation to go back to, really, moral standards and values and honesty and integrity,” Engle said. But, he said, “I would have difficulties in my own town gathering together for a worship service led by a Mormon. I wouldn’t do that. I don’t think it’d be right.”

Beck has sent a multitude of mixed signals on whether he considers theology important. He clearly downplayed the issue on Saturday at the rally, and on Monday went so far to say in an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that even atheists could respond to his call for greater morality without turning to God, as long as they practiced “self-regulation.”

But on Sunday Beck called into question President Obama’s theology for the second time in the past week, after saying earlier in the week that what Obama claims to believe is “a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it.”

“But as usual, the media won’t look at any of those facts because most people in the media don’t have any idea what Christianity really is,” Beck said.

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. was quoted Tuesday as saying Beck’s Mormonism was “irrelevant.”

“People of all faiths, all races and all creeds spoke and attended the event. Nobody was there to endorse anyone else’s faith, but we were all there to honor our armed forces and to call the people of America to restore honor,” Falwell said.

But Russell Moore, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the event “scandalous” in a blog post written Sunday.

“I’m quite willing to work with Mormons on various issues, as citizens working for the common good,” he said. “[But] any ‘revival’ that is possible without the Lord Jesus Christ is a ‘revival’ of a different kind of spirit than the Spirit of Christ … It’s sad to see so many Christians confusing Mormon politics or American nationalism with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland, was a key African-American Christian leader that Beck persuaded personally to join the rally, about six weeks ago in a meeting that included Alveda King. Jackson said that theological worries were also prominent among many black clergy leaders that Beck asked, directly or indirectly, to participate.

“Before the event a lot of folk were just concerned about, ‘Where is Beck?’” Jackson said in an interview. “I think most people that came to the event worked through both Glenn Beck’s sincerity and a real sense of transformation in his life, and they had to work through how much they were wiling to work with others.”

“I think many stayed home because they couldn’t reconcile the issue of Glenn Beck’s Mormonism and their own sense of faith and commitment to faith,” Jackson said.

For others, like Nelson, there was hesitation about standing with Beck, who has called President Obama a racist – a remark for which he later apologized, and with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who recently defended radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s use of the “N word” several times on a broadcast, which led in part to the conservative radio personality’s retirement.

“With Alveda’s encouragement, I decided that I would basically stand with her, even though I wasn’t promoting my involvement with Glenn Beck. It’s really more that I was standing with a very close friend who really wanted me to be there,” Nelson said. “Part of the challenge was they were not, even up until a few days prior to the event, they were not allowing really anybody to know the schedule.”

But Jackson, along with a few other leaders, was instrumental in convincing others like Nelson that Beck was okay to be associated with. Part of this convincing took the form of blurring the line on whether Beck – who said clearly Sunday on Fox that “most Christians don’t recognize me as a Christian” – was undergoing some sort of spiritual transformation, perhaps even a conversion to Christianity.

“I think that Glenn Beck has had a transcendent spiritual experience,” Jackson said in an interview. “I think Alveda King said it best … when she said he’s like Paul on the road to Damascus.”

Nelson said he was reassured with similar language: “That is the type of language that Bishop Jackson used in speaking to some of the clergy that he spoke to, encouraging them to attend,” he said.

And other major evangelical leaders have been quoted saying much the same thing in other press reports.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told CNN that Beck has begun to ask him theological questions and that on Saturday the Fox News host “sounded like Billy Graham.”

“I think he’s moving – I think he’s a person in spiritual motion and has been,” Land said.

Jim Garlow, the pastor of a large church in California who has been active in organizing against same-sex marriage, did go so far as to suggest Beck has converted to Christianity.

“I have interviewed persons who have talked specifically with Glenn about his personal salvation – persons extremely well known in Christianity – and they have affirmed (using language evangelicals understand), ‘Glenn is saved,'” Garlow said in a memo written to other pastors last week and obtained by CNN. “He understands receiving Christ as savior.”

Jackson, however, said that any talk of transformation was not a claim that Beck has converted from Mormonism to Christianity.

“I’m just saying that he’s had a spiritual experience with Christ,” Jackson said. “I’m not suggesting that he’s going to change faiths.”

Alveda King said she is “not sure” if Beck has converted.

“Doctrinal disputes are like racial disputes. We are all one human race in need of a Savior!” she wrote in an e-mail.

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