Reading through the coverage of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, I was struck by the classification of the event as more religious than political, and how that compared to Rev. King’s speech of 1963. Despite the fact that Beck claimed ignorance of the anniversary of King’s speech when he chose the date, he has since touted his event as a reclamation of the Civil Rights movement from political forces. Leaving aside the questionable framing of a difference of opinions on tax cuts and ideas like “social justice” as an impingement on a group’s civil rights, hearing about Beck’s calls for a spiritual re-awakening made me think about the difference in the nature of the appeals made on August 28, 1963 and August 28, 2010.
In Rev. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, we had a man of the cloth making an appeal not to religion, but to a sense of common humanity shared by everyone:
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The goal of King’s civil rights movement was equal treatment for African-Americans on issues ranging from everyday things, like hotel lodgings, to horrific things, like police brutality. He made his case for this equality not by appealing to a higher power (he mentions God only once in his speech), or to his own authority as a well-known leader of the civil rights movement, but by highlighting the things that African-Americans endured that no compassionate person would wish upon anyone. His appeal was overtly political, saying that he had come to Washington DC to seek fulfillment of the promises made by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and warning of the dangers of invocations of “interposition” and “nullification” (a trumping of federal law by state law) by “vicious racists” in Alabama.
Beck’s appeal was the opposite. Though billed as non-political, the messaging assumed a certain political ideology among its targets. Beck portrayed an America on the brink of disaster, saying “we must advance or perish, and I choose advance.” Sarah Palin had a similar message: “We must not fundamentally transform America, as some would want. We must restore America and restore her honor.” But instead of appealing to universal values to support for their point, they appealed to a higher power, saying that “America today begins to turn back to God.” In Beck’s eyes, a return to God (and thus religious rather than secular values) will lead to the policy outcomes necessary to halt the troubling trend of our nation.
This is not to say that Rev. King was not a religious man; clearly he was. Nor am I suggesting that the values taught by religion are not a good basis for making policy (though clearly there is a wide range of policy outcomes that can arise from religious values). But the differences between the approach used by King 47 years ago and the approach used by Beck yesterday speak to the power of their respective messages. Rev. King downplayed the significance of religion in his speech, relying instead on the universal applicability of his message to make his point. In contrast, Beck relies on religion, and in doing so admits that his vision is exclusive rather than universal.