I don’t want to pay attention to Glenn Beck right now–I’ve got more pressing things on my mind at the moment–but Ross Douthat’s analysis demands closer consideration.
To be specific, I think the lesson he draws from Beck’s weekend rally about the role of moral authority in the political order is almost right:
To loop back around to Glenn Beck’s rally on Saturday, I think that the peculiar moral power that Zurowik recognized in the day’s festivities — mawkish and maudlin and tacky as they often were — is entirely contingent on their unexpected disconnection from partisanship, and from the polarizing, disappointing work of politics. And to the extent that Beck himself grasps that point, then he’s grasped the only insight that could extend his current moment in the sun: Namely, that if you want to build and sustain moral authority in our culture, you shouldn’t emulate Barack Obama — you should emulate Oprah Winfrey.
“Moral authority” has the sort of ambiguity to it that makes it easy to recognize when we see it, but hard to specify precisely what we mean by it.
But more often than not, the people who we call “moral authorities” in our culture aren’t actually authoritative for us at all, but rather are simply embodiments of the sort of morality that we already believe in. They are projections of the moral system we prefer, not people with the sort of character to which we aspire.
In that sense, they are not authorities at all, and certainly not moral authorities. We are confronted with the moral authorities precisely when we recognize some way of life, some moral insight, or some decision that not merely contradicts our moral intuitions, but makes us suspect that they are wrongly ordered. A genuine moral authority is one who forces us to revise, or at least strongly question, our own moral systems.
That is precisely what Glenn Beck does not do. Douthat is right to question whether moral authority can survive our political climate. But we should also wonder whether it can exist in our cultural climate at all. In that sense, Douthat’s earlier analysis that Beck’s event was “identity politics without the politics” is closer to the mark. Beck has no genuine moral authority. He is only saying to the faithful precisely what they want to hear, reconfirming their deepest intuitions about the world, and challenging them to do precisely nothing that they weren’t going to do already.
That seems to play particularly well with evangelicals because the message that we should rededicate ourselves to God is one that evangelicals are particularly good at hearing–for our neighbors. They are the ones who seem to stand in real (and perpetual) need of such a rededication, and we seem only too happy to remind folks of it as often as we can.