There are a lot of good people – people with whom I agree on most things – who are put off by Glenn Beck. Sometimes I’m put off by Glenn Beck. There are conclusions he makes about history that I find simplistic, off-center, or just plain wrong. His on-screen persona can be over the top.
But today, I come not to bury Glenn Beck but to praise him. Because he does something right that matters more than almost anything else: he stands where he believes he’s been told by God to stand, and says what he knows he has to say.
The things that discourage us from doing that have great power. For many people, it just feels indecorous. Personality and upbringing are a tremendous self-deterrent. For a lot of others, the natural fear of being misunderstood and thought a fool is a mighty influence. There are many who agree with much of what Beck says, but are discouraged from saying it themselves, because of the long experience we all have with the spin-and-obfuscation machine that is automatically set in motion by any conservative-right assertion, no matter how nuanced. Beck actually makes some insightful and complex arguments, when he’s dealing with things he has gained substantial knowledge of, but all his arguments are misrepresented on principle in the leftosphere: reworded and distorted to put him in a bad light.
Even many on the right are at pains to repudiate him, as they do other popular conservative mega-figures like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. But as I have written about Sarah Palin before, I see in Beck a quality that conservatives despise at their peril. That quality is the willingness to stand up and answer the call, no matter what: to say what he knows he has been appointed to say, and not tack or trim to catch the winds of MSM approval.
What Glenn Beck believes he has been appointed to say is about character in the American people. He’s been making that point for months, as far as I can tell. It’s why he invokes Martin Luther King, Jr. so often. If you weren’t prepared for Beck’s Restoring Honor rally to be about character, then you don’t know much about him. And for Beck – as for millions of other Americans – character cannot be addressed apart from God. For Beck, as for these others, there is nothing artificial or strained about calling on God and behaving as if we live in His presence; it is natural, reflexive, and unforced.
The left will do what it’s going to do, but what I’d like to do here is reiterate a point I made about Palin last year to my fellows on the right. The point is this: people like Beck, Palin, and Limbaugh are as much a test of our character as anything else. Are we so dedicated to a set idea of decorum and credentials that we will close our ears to people who are telling us the truth, because of their social attributes, communication style, and demeanor?
When we see 500,000 or more people turn out on the Mall at the end of August – in the heat and humidity, in a painful recession, after school and sports have already started in many states – are we going to insist that that’s “not conservatism,” that it’s something we need to triangulate away from and reject, because people prayed to God, got emotional, and talked about character?
And if so, what is it we’re waiting for that we think is better? From what standpoint is it better? Glenn Beck, for all his intellectual faults (and we each have them), sees something very clearly: that America needs a restoration of character. Our republican liberties depend on republican virtues, and there is no future for our republican ideal if the virtues are not re-identified and cultivated again. His unique perspective on this is suffused by more practical truth than any raft of academic studies, because he’s a recovering alcoholic. “Restoration” is a theme he has a gift for: a gift not only of analytical insight but of personal experience with balancing justice and mercy, and distinguishing between self-deception and realistic hope.
And he’s right about this, too: America can’t be set on a better course solely with changes in federal policy. Law and government don’t – can’t – make the people good. They don’t make us eligible for liberty. Our law and government are only as good as we are. It’s the people who have to change. And spiritual revival never looks like something organized by State Department protocol; when people are changing from the inside, there are rallies, hortatory preaching, gabfests, sorrow, joy.
I urge my fellow conservatives not to despise this phenomenon or be disparaging about it. All our futures depend on the character of the people around us. Fear, defensiveness, and moral weakness in the people are the best friends of the tyrant. None of us can resist the siren-call of statist collectivization single-handedly. It is not embarrassing or over-the-top for people to gather in public to affirm that there’s such a thing as good character, and that we can’t do without it. It is meaningful and life-changing to many. It is necessary.
To stand up and assume leadership in this effort is to make oneself a target. Beck has done so; as our modern expression goes, he “puts it out there,” ready to weather criticism because he believes he has a task. Like Sarah Palin, he seems to have been put where he is “for such a time as this.” No existing model of media success would have led him to do what he is doing today: to teach history on his program, to read passages from America’s early texts, to interview obscure academics and little-known clerics, to talk like a fire-and-brimstone preacher about character.
But here he is, and Fox lets him do it. He gets the ratings with what he offers. He reaches more people in one week, with the kind of truth about our history that will only strengthen the political appeal of modern conservatism, than some more-polished legacy conservatives have reached over their entire careers. He’s meeting a lot of people where they are, in their lives and level of knowledge, rather than despising them for where they’re not. That’s something all of us can profitably ponder.
Cross-posted at Hot Air.