by Omri Elisha
When lists start to appear ranking the “Top 10 Religion Stories of 2010,” Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally will almost certainly be among them. But amidst the hype surrounding his efforts to reinvigorate theocentric civil religion, more attention should be paid to the question of whether Beck's entry into the realm of public theology will actually have any noteworthy influence on how religion is conceived and practiced in local communities and faith networks, and what that influence might be.
Journalists and commentators described the atmosphere at Restoring Honor as more like a “religious revival” or “church picnic” (as if the two were one and the same) than a political rally, though few overlooked the game-changing significance of the renewed affinity between the religious right and Tea Party activism. Moreover, prominent evangelical leaders and Christian bloggers responded to the strong undertones of Christian nationalism (and the participation of figures like Richard Land, James Dobson and John Hagee) by debating whether conservative Christians can or should get over the fact that Beck is a Mormon. However you slice it, there was clearly a whole lotta religion going on.
But if there really is a story about religion here, and not just politics, then how exactly do everyday religious people fit into it? How are religious communities and practitioners at the grassroots becoming embedded in Glenn Beck's ever-expanding web of influence?
Consider, for example, the intended impact of Beck's anachronistically titled “Black Robe Regiment.” This loosely constituted interfaith battalion of clergy – assembled with guidance from conservative evangelical heavyweight David Barton, and supposedly “thousands” strong – is meant to represent a position of moral consensus, a unified front of religious elites committed to a culture war in defense of constitutional liberties perceived to be at risk. That much is easy to ascertain.
What remains unclear is whether Beck and his partners aim to facilitate specific strategic initiatives, apart from the usual “let's go out and spread the word,” in order to advance the Black Robe agenda beyond the level of public rhetoric. Exactly how are the ideological purposes of this group going to circulate within and among religious communities, penetrating the lives of the millions of Americans who actually attend revivals and church picnics? Will they figure into the worship services and communal rituals where the ideas and sentiments that shape distinct religious identities are reinforced?
Also unclear is the extent to which Beck is spearheading a new coalition or building on existing right-wing movements and Christian nationalist projects already in full gear. Is he picking up where the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority of the 1980s left off?
Being a member of the Black Robe Regiment may well require religious leaders to do more than attend motivational conferences and occasionally deliver sermons about liberty and national renewal from the pulpit. High-level networking and public preaching among prominent conservative figures is already noteworthy, to be sure, but in order to assess whether the Black Robe Regiment amounts to something more than a few well-connected clergy seeking to enhance their profile, journalists as well as scholars need to investigate the social mechanisms “on the ground” that are actually being set in motion–or not–before the political relevance of Beck's initiative can be truly and fairly assessed.
In other words, if Glenn Beck (America's fourth most-admired person in a recent Gallup survey) is determined to use religion to establish himself as something more than a media pundit, then journalists must probe exactly how intends to do so, as well as asking what other interests are being served in the process.
Omri Elisha is assistant professor of anthropology at Queens College of the City University of New York. He has written several articles on American evangelicalism as well as the forthcoming book, Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches, to be published next year by the University of California Press.