Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Moses "Restoring Honor": Glenn Beck Uses (and Misuses) Exodus

The mainstream media didn't know quite what to do with Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, held last Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial. It was newsworthy--upwards of 100,000 people showed--but what was it? A Tea Party event wrapped in the mantle of religious rhetoric? More demagoguery by the bete noire of the progressive left? A pep rally for Albert Pujols, who accepted an award for "Hope." (I really need to get my hands on one of those "Hope" awards--I'm absolutely brimming with optimism. Or perhaps I should gun for an award in some other pithy ideal ... perhaps Trustworthiness, or Dyspepsia.)

Consensus opinion is that it wasn't overly political--despite Sarah Palin's headlining speech--but that it was extremely religious. If there were a thesis, it was simple: America should return to God. Here are some stray Beck quotes, pulled from rushecho.org's transcript of the event: "Look to God and make your choice." "Turn back to God." "Praise be to God." "We still have faith in God in America." "America is not just good because God has chosen her." "Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh ... oh my God." (Okay, that last one was Usher, but the first five were all Beck.)

Lefties are seething at the conflation of religious sentiment and patriotism, but Beck's message--that America is holy, and that Americans should therefore be holy--is as old as the United States itself. Since the Puritans' arrival, prominent Americans have described our nation as a "Promised Land" and characterized the United States as a new Israel--a people selected by God for especial blessing. Conrad Cherry rounds up primary historical documents on this theme in a nice anthology, God's New Israel.

Beck made this America-as-Promised-Land link clear through the Biblical allusions in his keynote address. Here's the new Moses himself, courtesy again of rushecho.org, hearkening back to the old Moses:

"It occurs all through history: we fall asleep and then wake up, from time to time. It has from the burning bush: Moses, freedom, then they wander in the wilderness till they turn back to God. In Egypt, they prayed for deliverance and Jehovah sent Moses with a stick. Those bringing Freedom were just men—they were just like you! Coming across the plains they relied on God. America is not good just because God has chosen her — America is good and great because citizens are good and great.

The takeaway, as I see it, goes something like this: America is enslaved--"in Egypt"--and the "Restoring Honor" rally was Glenn ben Moshe's effort to train tens of thousands of new Moseses--"just like you"--to "bring Freedom" to the masses.

Okay, it's a cute allegory, but the progressive conspiracy theorist in me wants to finish the metaphor with the obvious subtext: the Egyptian taskmasters are Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and their leader is that hard-hearted African pharaoh, Barack Hussein Obama! But Beck didn't go there Saturday, so I won't go there today.

However, for the sake of Biblical accuracy, it's worth noting that Beck is playing fast and loose with the Exodus myth here ... and not only because he calls Moses a guy "with a stick."

First of all, the Israelites themselves never "pray for deliverance" from the Egyptians. God merely hears "their cry" and knows "their sufferings" (Exodus 3:7-8)--and they're enslaved, so they probably cry and suffer a lot. To imagine the Israelites kneeling in Egypt, praying devoutly for the arrival of a divinely sanctioned savior is to thoroughly misunderstand their corporate character.

Indeed, the Israelites' first utterance as a liberated people paints a very different picture. Seeing the Pharaoh's army chasing them, they complain to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? [...] It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness" (Exodus 14: 11-13). This rabble is not going to be given the "Faithfulness" award at Beck's next rally.

Such kvetching is of a piece with the Israelites' attitude throughout their time in the wilderness, and a pile of other instances suggest, contra Beck, that the chosen people did not simply "rely on God" during their wanderings. Further, from my perspective, they are not "good and great," as Beck calls his gathered chosen. If I had to choose adjectives to describe God's people wandering outside Egypt, I'd choose "short-sighted" and "bitchy." Sorry. It's true! Read Exodus again.

Further, the Bible's Moses doesn't hold mammoth, self-aggrandizing rallies in front of the Tutankhamen Memorial to win recruits. He fights God tooth and nail. When God calls Moses at the Burning Bush and asks him to liberate Israel, Moses comes up with no fewer than five distinct excuses as to why he can't do what God asks: 1. I'm nothing next to Pharaoh (3:11), 2. I don't know you (3:13), 3. They won't believe me (4:1), 4. I can't talk pretty (4:10), and 5. Why me? (4:13). Beck seems to salivate over the savior's role; Moses doesn't really want it at all. Only when God gets pissed does Moses relent and take the job.

Now, I don't want to suggest that Beck's casual treatment of the Bible is unique; his understanding of Exodus isn't too far removed from that of other Americans. But because most devout Christians and Jews don't understand their scriptures, paper tigers like Beck can use them as, dare I say it, propaganda. He can twist the Bible in such a way as to convince the masses that he is from God, and that they should be from God too.

However, in Exodus, just about no one turns to God, relies on God, or rejoices at being chosen by God. They turn from Him over and over again. And Beck is not a new Moses--he is a savior of his own creation, leading his flock we know not where.

Of course, Beck's rally at the Lincoln Memorial drew criticism because it took place on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, given at the same location. King, too, famously uses Exodus to frame his project, but he does so with better knowledge, and with a darker sense of nuance. He evokes Moses's death--outside Canaan--in another speech delivered shortly before his own assassination. This is the closing movement of his "I've been to the mountaintop" speech:

Watching King, I take a page from Beck and tear up.

But let's make one thing perfectly clear: I prefer King's Exodus.


  1. What's your take on this aspect:

    http://www.moses-in-history.com ?

  2. It's a very slick site, anonymous, and it's got lots of cool links and primary source quotes. But it seems to me as if its implied message is the old conservative saw: that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and should continue to be governed as such. I have real problems with the "Prototype of democracy" section, especially its final sentence: "The conclusion that democracy should be modeled after the government of ancient Israel 'was carried forward in all of the New England colonies by the leading ministers from 1633 until the adoption of the Constitution of the United states'." The suggestion that the Mosaic legal and legislative (?) system is a proto-democracy exemplifies the type of Bible-twisting that Beck does in his speech (and as many others do too!).

  3. But that's after perusing the site for all of ten minutes--perhaps I'm not getting the whole picture.

  4. Great presentation of the Exodus story. It reminds me of when I was writing my seminary thesis on John and talking about John 6, in which Jesus links back to the Exodus...And the people he is talking to start complaining just like the Israelites (John is not without a sense of humor). I decided to translate the Greek word as "murmergrumble."


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