Getting (civil) religion

Tmatt already looked at some early coverage of the "Restoring Honor" rally held in Washington this weekend. I went down to the Lincoln Memorial to catch part of it but couldn't even come close to hearing, much less seeing, what was going on. But I did meet a ton of people. It was a completely different event than the tea parties I've seen. Last September, there was a huge gathering in D.C. of people upset at the size and scope of the federal governemnt. This was even before health care legislation was signed into law. The protesters carried thousands upon thousands of creative and witty signs and it was really something to see. I was pretty sure I'd never seen a protest with so many employed people, or so many people who had children. And grandchildren. This past weekend's event was just dramatically different. It also had more post-college attendees than a typical protest. But there were literally no signs. And there were no politics, if by politics we mean discussion of the current administration or Congress, pending or passed legislation, and what not. So it was just tons of people coming together to talk about faith and values. It was the biggest civil religion event I'd seen since the 2008 Obama campaign.

I'm highly sensitive to civil religion, seeing as how I am working on a book about it. So my ears pricked up when I heard (in the only snippet I heard and, so help me, I may have gotten this wrong) Glenn Beck say something about how the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are "sacred texts." Now, depending on how strictly or loosely you define "sacred," that may hit you differently. But that's pure American civil religion. When I watched this Reason video, I heard much more civil religion. About how "our faith has driven us to become the greatest people the world has ever known" ... "Faith is in short supply. To restore America, we must restore ourselves. We must rediscover the values and principles that the Founders established. We must restore the faith that once guided us." It's faith language, but without any doctrinal specificity, a lowest-common denominator deity (if such a thing is possible).

Now, while I'm no fan of civil religion myself, this language parallels a lot of the language you hear from any successful American politician. President Obama's campaign rhetoric and some of his speeches as president have been full of civil religion references. As I visited the Lincoln Memorial yesterday, I was reminded of how our 16th President was the master of the civil religion rhetoric. As I walked home, I heard part of a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speech that was a powerful mixture of Christian sermon and American politics.

So I was curious to see how well the media "got" the civil religion angle. And in some cases, they did great. I thought Jon Ward at the Daily Caller understood it with his article headlined "In front of historic crowd on the Mall, Beck makes plea for spiritual renewal and self-government." Here's a portion:

Beck's presupposition was that America is at a crisis point and its citizens are in danger of losing their power for self-government because they have grown lazy and apathetic and allowed it to atrophy.

"America is great because America is good ... America is only what we choose her to be, we as individuals must be good so America can be great," he said. "We've grown tired. We've grown weak. We're dividing ourselves. There is growing hatred in the country. We must be better than what we've allowed ourselves to become. We must get the poison of hatred out of us. No matter what anyone might say or do, no matter what anyone smears or lies or throws our way ... we must look to God and look to love."

Beck made clear that he was not advocating for any one religion. He brought a group of clergy onto the stage and encouraged those at the rally and watching online or on TV to "go to your churches, your synagogues, your mosques, anyone who is not preaching hate and division, anyone who is not teaching to kill another man."

"These men and women don't agree on fundamentals. They don't agree on everything that every church teaches," Beck said of the clergy behind him on stage. "What they do agree on is God is the answer."

Ward got very detailed, explaining Beck's Mormonism and the particular religious views of many of the speakers. Other media outlets completely missed the subtext and details that could help clarify just what, exactly, was happening in Washington this weekend. A GetReligion reader sent in this Associated Press story that failed to mention or even allude to civil religion once. And it also never mentioned anything about Glenn Beck's faith. It's headlined "Beck rally signals election trouble for Dems" and, you will not be surprised, it interprets the day's events through the typical political prism:

Neither Democrats nor Republicans can afford to ignore the antiestablishment fervor displayed Saturday during Beck's rally that took on the tone of an evangelical revival.

And then there was this attempt to explain:

The tea party is essentially a loosely organized band of anti-tax, libertarian-leaning political newcomers who are fed up with Washington and take some of their cues from Beck. While the movement drew early skepticism from establishment Republicans, these same GOP powerbrokers now watch it with a wary eye as activists have mounted successful primary campaigns against incumbents.

The Beck rally further demonstrated the tea party activists' growing political clout.

If the GOP is able to contain and cooperate with the tea party, and recharge its evangelical wing with Beck-style talk of faith, it spells the kind of change Ratliff and others like him are searching for.

See, the thing that was so interesting about Saturday's event is that it felt like a different set of people who are fed up with Washington than the group that had been protesting previously. It is true that the earlier tea party protests were libertarian-leaning. (And I can spot libertarians in their natural environment up to one mile away.) This was not a libertarian event. I am unclear as to how much overlap there is between this group and the other groups. I remember last year people kept wanting me to write about the religious angle to the 9/12 rally and I kept explaining that there wasn't one. Well, there was a huge (civil) religion angle at this event.

Anyway, it's hard to trust a reporter to get the political nuance when he doesn't even note that Beck is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Needless to say, the term "evangelical" isn't usually used in close proximity to that church. And it wasn't just an oversight since later the reporter writes:

Beck, who speaks openly about his Christian faith on his radio and cable news shows, relied heavily on religion during his speech, perhaps offering up a playbook for tea party activists and Republicans this November.

Now, if you want to have a fun comment war, open up the question of whether Mormons are Christian. We will not be doing that here so if you're inclined to debate the issue, find another venue! In any case, Mormons call themselves Christian. Most Christian church bodies, whether progressive or traditional, would not. I've thought a lot about this issue, having family members who are Mormon or have converted from Mormonism. It's a contentious topic which requires a good deal of understanding of theology, history, the importance or unimportance of creedal confessions, etc. Obviously reporters aren't going to get into all of that. I think that the best option when writing stories is to explain the debate in the briefest of terms or to simply describe people as members of whatever church or group they are. Mormon, evangelical, Presbyterian, charismatic, etc.

But this AP story managed to treat the hot topic like it wasn't an issue at all. Perhaps that's because the reporter, Phil Elliott, is a political reporter unaware of all of these nuances. But any further treatment of this topic could use the help of a religion reporter to navigate these tricky areas.

Please respect our Commenting Policy