After Saturday's massive Glenn Beck rally on the Mall, the pundit class is scratching their heads and asking, "What exactly was that?!"
The always interesting conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote he had underestimated Glenn Beck: "(T)he crowded Mall was nearly free of political signs and T-shirt slogans. ... Instead, Beck served up something considerably stranger. This was a tent revival crossed with a pep rally intertwined with a history lecture married to a U.S.O. telethon -- and that was just in the first hour."
Why gather 300,000 people for a civics lecture with a gospel choir attached? Why? What the heck is Beck up to?
I was there on Saturday, but not as a reporter. Pastor Jim Garlow, my dear friend and co-conspirator in the battle to get Proposition 8 on the ballot in California, had invited me to join the so-called "black-robe brigade," who dramatically linked arms behind Beck on stage -- symbolically linking this gathering to the Founders, who mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.
Beck is a man who understands symbolism. Even his critics concede this when they call him a showman, a carny, the P.T. Barnum of our age. The thing with Beck is, I think he means it: Beck knows in a deep way that symbols aren't the decorative dross floating around to distract you from the important real stuff -- they are the most important stuff, of which lives are crafted.
Aristotle wrote that man is a political animal. On the National Mall, Beck pointed out that man is the symbolic animal. The hundreds of thousands of Americans who rallied to his call are symbol-starved because the ordinary culture-creators of society -- our so-called intellectual and media elites -- have resolutely and determinedly starved their hunger for public symbols. On the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, in a space delineated by the Washington Monument on one end and the Lincoln Memorial on the other, Beck asked the question: "Who are we?" And then he pointed to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. to provide the answers.
What connects these three men across space and time? All three spoke and acted out of the American public culture of Christianity, a culture in which a firm faith in divine providence was an ordinary given, to be shared with others, not a deeply controversial culture war statement. And of these three, Glenn Beck pointed out, Dr. King is the only one we have not yet carved in marble; he's still a man, and so still a reminder of what men are called to be.
One of the black-robed brigade turned to me on stage and said, "If we can do this, we can pass a marriage movement." Suddenly, many things seemed possible.
When I'm feeling cynical, I have an alternative explanation for what Glenn Beck is up to: Glenn Beck is interested in using this public hunger to rile up social conservatives so they vote with libertarians while getting nothing in return.
Time will tell.
Cultures are defined in the end by the good they are for, not the evils they combat. Purely reactionary movements rise and wither and die, as people become tired of endless combat.
Can conservatism cease to be a partisan political movement and become the basis for a real public culture? With a capacity to create heroes, paint portraits, nurture symbols that inspire lives?
It seems to me that that is what Beck is up to.
(Maggie Gallagher is the founder of the National Organization for Marriage and has been a syndicated columnist for 14 years.)