TIME’s Elizabeth Dias files this report:
Glenn Beck’s revival may appear to forecast him as less of a leader for America’s evangelical base than one might think. In fact, many evangelical leaders suggest Beck’s success could ultimately fail–if pulpits carefully parse the distinction Beck fails to make between Christianity and civil religion.
Leith Anderson, the President of the National Association of Evangelicals, told TIME that Saturday was no watershed moment harnessing evangelical power under a new conservative leader: “I think it was one more Washington rally.” David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, said evangelicals are wary of partnering with a vague God of civil religion or Mormonism: “Neither one of those is specifically the same God that evangelicals believe is true and worship.” And as Amy pointed out earlier this week, Russell Moore, Dean of the School of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, nailed the rally as a scandal and called pastors to teach their churches “[…] to know the difference between the kingdom of God and the latest political whim.”
Despite Beck’s proclamations that the rally had no political agenda, portraying the Constitution or Declaration as common “sacred texts” immediately lands him in an evangelical political-theology minefield, where evangelicals debate whether their allegiance stands first with the flag or the Eucharist table. Anderson cautions that faith in God—not politics or morals—has the highest place for evangelicals. “The attempt to elevate political and other persuasions to anything close to the level of the importance of the Bible or faith in Jesus Christ is to deeply misunderstand evangelical faith and truth, and a lot of people [read: Beck] try to do that,” he says.
But whether or not this message filters through to the pulpits is less predictable. Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter opened his sermon on Sunday praising the rally, “We all want to be a better country, and we want to be better citizens, and we want to be better followers of God. O my goodness. Who cannot love that stuff? And so God bless Glenn Beck on this occasion, and may his tribe increase, may that philosophy increase.” Not exactly a comment one might expect from the Joel Hunter TIME heralded in 2008 as one of Obama’s faith advisers and kindred spirits. But the thundering applause that followed confirmed his 12,000 person strong congregation was on board.
To be sure, the relationship between evangelicals and members of Beck’s Mormon faith is improving—no small change when one group traditionally considers the other a cult and rival for overseas missions. For the last dozen years Richard Mouw, President of California’s leading evangelical school Fuller Theological Seminary, has led groundbreaking conversations with Mormon leaders to bridge theological rapids. Wheaton College, IL, the evangelical flagship, and Brigham Young University developed an annual spring break dialogue trip in 2007. If symbols signify change, a couple years back the Mormon church changed its official logo to accent “Jesus Christ” in the largest font. And the two groups share ground on abortion and marriage issues.
But even Salt Lake City does not seem to want to muddy political-theology waters in this case—post-rally the Mormon church as been noticeably silent. If this keeps up, two of Beck’s target audiences may be harder than anticipated to reach.