Monday, August 30, 2010

Is Glenn Beck reborn in the image of King?

The rally Glenn Beck staged the other day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial raises the question of whether he has been reborn in the spirit of the great man he repeatedly invoked: Martin Luther King Jr.

Up to now, there was no confusing Beck with King. Truth be told, Beck was more in the mold of a nemesis of the civil rights struggle, George Corley Wallace, the Alabama governor who stood at a university doorway to block its first two black students from registering. Wallace ran for president as a populist, broadcasting the slogan “Stand Up for America” and railing against “pointy-headed intellectuals” and other assorted liberals. He won strong support in pockets of white America fearful of the racial, social and cultural upheaval under way in the land (think Archie Bunker) – the very same sectors that today revere Beck as a leader of their effort to take their country back.

At Saturday’s rally, however, Beck cooled his shrill, divisive rhetoric, saying: “There’s a lot we can disagree on, but our values and our principles can unite us. We must discover them again.”

What’s more, the next day the talk show host took back the slur he made against President Obama last year – remarks that had epitomized Beck’s tendency to polarize the nation. He had accused Obama of harboring a deep-seated hatred of white people and of being a racist – without resting the accusation on any facts. In an interview on Fox News Sunday, however, Beck finally admitted he had erred and that he regretted the remarks, adding: "I have a big fat mouth sometimes and I say things"

So does Beck’s revival-like rally signal he has atoned for his sins, that he has seen the light, that he has become a new man, in the spirit of King?

I happened to have basked in that spirit at the original March on Washington in 1963. I was a high school kid, D.C. was my home town, and King and his fellow freedom fighters were my heroes. I felt awed and honored to walk in their midst.

Despite the often brutal resistance the civil rights warriors faced in the South, peace and love pervaded the original march. The participants heeded King, who said in his “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”

So has Beck now ascended to that plane? Unfortunately, the signs so far are that Beck’s conversion is phony.

A case in point: In taking back his Obama slur, Beck still dismissed the president as “a guy who understands the world through liberation theology,” as if that was a bad thing, Yet, liberation theology is precisely what King practiced, as alluded to in his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and stated perhaps most emphatically in his 1958 book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. The relevant excerpt:

“Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion. Such a religion is the kind that Marxists like to see - an opiate of the people.”

At the rally right-wing darling and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin likewise spoke contradictorily about King. On the one hand: “On this ground where we are so honored to stand today, we feel the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” On the other hand: “We must not fundamentally transform America as someone wants. We must restore America and restore her honor.”

That “someone” is, presumably, Obama. More to the point, the fundamental transformation of America is what King was all about, as he particularly made clear in his 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. An excerpt:

“The Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. … One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.”

Since fundamental change through liberation theology was so central to King, there is absolutely no way to trash either concept and still claim to be his disciple.

Beck and Palin remain lost in the wilderness of social unfairness, self-delusion and hucksterism.

Relevant links:

“Martin Luther King would have been on Glenn Beck's chalkboard,” Media Matters
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech

King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail"
King’s “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech
Paper on the 1968 campaign rhetoric of George Wallace
Youtube video comparing King’s words at 1963 March on Washington with words of participants at Glenn Beck’s rally


  1. Greg, someone just forwarded a copy of your blog postings to my husband, who shared them with me. Thanks so much for your thoughtful analysis of several important events taking place these days. I have missed your column in the JS, and don't see any connection to you on FB.

    What are you doing these days, besides the blogs?

    How are your sons? I remember them from the days that they participated in the wonderful summer programs that I coordinated at St. Elizabeth those summers back in late 1960's.

    If you are on fb, send me a fb message and let me know how you are and what you are doing these days. Jacqueline Haessly

    I continue to teach and write about peace issues; I am currently in the process of revising a number of books, one for the 30th anniversary edition of its first publication. Dan (Di Domizio) my husband, continues to teach Religious Studies at Stritch, and directs the Urban Ministry program there.

    We now have 15 grandkids, ages 3 months to 17years, and we enjoy spending time with them.

    peace and blessings, and thanks again for your thoughtful -- and important -- words.


  2. Hi, Jackie -- I am on Facebook, but I couldn't find you. Are we on the same Facebook? Anyhow, blogging and social media remain a bit baffling to me. I just discovered that readers of this blog could e-mail me directly, and I've enabled that capability. Just click on "e-mail" under my profile, and send me a message, so I can e-mail you back. Good hearing from you. -- Greg

  3. Despite Beck's and Palin's evocations of Dr. King and his "liberal" philosophies, they remain two of the most prominent spokespersons of the 2000's white backlash. Akin to the 1960s white backlash against sweeping civil rights legislation which was spearheaded by both King's leadership and LBJ's Great Society agenda, this latest backlash comes as an angry reaction to another historical breakthrough: America's first black president.

    Where was this restoring honor rally when Bush ran roughshod over the U.S. Constitution and international treaties? These are some of dishonorable acts we saw from 2000-2008 -- invasion of a sovereign nation, eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without warrants, denying detainees basic legal rights, and sanctioning torture of detainees. If ever there was a restoring the honor rally needed, it was during the G.W. Bush/Cheney years!

    The acceptance of change is not easy. As America slowly embraces and even promotes its multicultural population, there will remain those who fight for the status quo. I suspect there remains those who still want 'white only' swimming pools and water fountains. Perhaps we will never see the day that King longed for where people are judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. But we move forward in spite of the backlash. And like the backlashers of the 1960s, these modern-day ones will eventually get over it too.

  4. Great article Mr Stanford, ditto on every point. It leads me to ask why media personalities like Beck, who's greatest achievement is being a TV host on Fox cable network. Palin and even Joe Scarborough and company, in some bizarre thought process believe they can run this country through the media network. You here it everyday, on a variety of events, the President should be doing this! Even this morning, one person on Morning Joe, called for the President to arrest the Koran burning Pastor and worry about the consequence later. He suggested it would show leadership and improve his rating.

    In perspective to mention Beck in the same breath as King is some what insulting to Dr.King legacy. I do understand you're addressing the event of that day, but the self proclaim leader of the stupid people, just shows how out-of-hand the media personalities have gotten. They're actually believing themselves.