WASHINGTON — I left the Glenn Beck rally worried that I didn’t have much of a story.
It was all revival meeting, no political fireworks. The news reports accurately likened the atmosphere to that of a church picnic — and no reporter wants to write about a church picnic.
But then I realized: the abundance of religiosity was the news. Beck is offering — and whatever the precise crowd count, a whole lot of people seemed to be buying — a new form of fusion politics, melding the anti-government, anti-spending, anti-tax fervor of the tea party with the faith-based agenda of the religious right.
“America today begins to turn back to God,” Beck proclaimed. On stage, he had assembled a “Black Robe Regiment” of religious leaders, modeled on a group of colonist-backing pastors during the Revolutionary War.
For decades, the conservative movement has struggled to manage tensions between fiscal and social conservatives. There is an overlap between the two camps, but the libertarian urges of the fiscal conservatives also tend to rub against the anti-abortion and, more recently, anti-gay-rights positions of the social conservatives. The successful Republican politician — Ronald Reagan, most prominently — is the one who manages to minimize that friction and get the two wings to work in unison.
The tea-partiers are not synonymous with the Republican Party, but they have reflected the fiscal conservative strain of the GOP. It has not been clear whether, or how, the tea party would seek to accommodate the religious aspect of the conservative movement.
Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally illustrated one potential route. His is not Moral Majority religious conservatism, with opposition to abortion as a litmus test of political bona fides. Indeed, a few weeks back, Beck expressed the heretical view that same-sex marriage was not a threat to the country.
Rather than fire-and-brimstone, Beck offered up more of a soft-focus religion, divorced from specific points of doctrine. This was new-agey spirituality as self-help, fortified by a hefty dose of patriotism garbed in religious imagery.
There is every reason to think this is the thinnest veneer of tolerance: fresh from the rally, Beck was back to dismissing President Obama’s religious views. “People aren’t recognizing his version of Christianity,” Beck told Fox News’ Chris Wallace. This would be insulting from any leader, but it is particularly galling coming from Beck, whose own faith — Mormonism — is viewed as a suspicious cult by some Christian leaders.
But among those in Saturday’s throng, the linkage between faith and libertarian-leaning politics seemed obvious.
“We’ve lost our morality. The country is headed in the wrong direction by removing God from everything,” said Bob Erdt, a retired Ford engineer from Michigan, explaining his participation. Then, Erdt shifted seamlessly to the fiscal side. “We’re spending way too much money that we don’t have,” he said. “Anybody with any common sense or honor or morality knows we can’t be spending like this and not bringing the country to ruin.”
Asked what had inspired her to fly to the capital from Colorado, Andrea Carrasco started with God and ended with light bulbs.
She came, Carrasco said, to “ask God to restore the country. Our freedom is lost. My freedoms are lost. To be able to preach anywhere we want, to have God in our schools, to drive any kind of car we want and if I want to drive a gas guzzler I can, if I want to eat a lot of sugar and salt, and I shouldn’t be forced to buy medical care.”
Carrasco paused, but only briefly. “To be able to burn the kind of light bulb I want,” she added. “The list goes on.”
It’s too early to know whether Beck’s bridge between social and fiscal conservatism is sturdy enough to withstand the conflicting pulls. Already there is edginess among traditional leaders of the religious right about Beck’s bona fides.
Another question is whether the linkage between two wings risks limiting the tea party’s appeal to independent voters worried about the deficit but at risk of being turned off by overt religiosity or hard-line social conservatism.
Beck’s brand of messianic politics feels creepy to me — but it is clearly compelling to thousands. Make that hundreds of thousands. This was one church picnic worth covering.