In the Belly of the Beast

“Mingling religion with politics should be disavowed and reprobated by every inhabitant of America.”

—Thomas Paine, Common Sense

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It was August 28th, and the National Mall was packed from the Lincoln Memorial all the way to the Washington monument. There were hundreds of thousands of people there. Teeming multitudes stretched for about a quarter mile on either side of the long reflecting pool. It was the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and the American right-wing was honouring his memory with a “Rally to Restore Honour” designed to show opposition to an eloquent black leader suspected of being a socialist.

Only in a country where cognitive dissonance is the national pastime could anything like this ever take place. Officially, the rally was “non-political,” but as I stood in the midst of the throng, the crowd bristled on every side with furiously anti-government slogans. I was surrounded by people dressed in shirts bearing images of old glory or the tattered scroll of America’s Declaration of Independence. Their chests and hats were bedecked with buttons announcing “I LOVE MY GUN!” and “JESUS LIVES!” Directly in front of me, a cluster of intense looking men in combat fatigues were holding aloft large placards advertising the website, and another gang of fanatics a few rows to the right was brandishing an enormous “ONE NATION UNDER GOD” sign with righteous abandon.

It was a hot day, and I fanned myself with a complimentary plastic fan I had picked up at an booth nearby. It was decorated with flaming red letters proclaiming “IN GOD WE TRUST,” and bore a prominent “Made in China” sticker on the handle. In my other hand I held a thick sheaf of leaflets and glossy magazines that I had gathered during my walk through the crowd. I flipped through the titles: “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Getting Ready to Ride Again!” exhorted one. Beneath it was a thin magazine entitled “Last Generation: To Prepare you for the Final Conflict between Good and Evil, Vol. 16, No. 6.”

Hundreds of thousands of people with similar buttons, banners and pamphlets stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction.

The rally had been organized by Glenn Beck, one of modern America’s most popular media personalities. Beck is a Mormon political pundit who works for Fox News. He has his own eponymous radio and TV programs, and a listening audience equivalent to nearly half the population of Canada tunes into his frequency every weekday.

A few months earlier, he had announced to the nation that God had personally spoken to him, commanding him to gather the American people in Washington and deliver a holy message. The decision to have the rally on the exact day and location of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech, according to Beck, had been completely random. He later declared the “coincidence” to have been a miracle. His message of fundamentalist nationalist militarism shared so much with King’s message of 1963 that the Lord ensured they happened on the same day.

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