But the thrust of the event was the effort to tell participants a story about themselves that would justify their identity and legitimate their claims in the public sphere. Oddly, little reporting bothered to recount the details of Beck’s opening performance, which, while officially repudiating racism, disturbingly substituted religion as the glue that held an identity block together in a way that race has often been used.

He began with a history lesson, and the full video is worth watching, beginning about five minutes in. According to Glenn Beck, American history begins when “God’s chosen people were led out of bondage by a guy with a stick who was talking to a burning bush.” Simultaneously in the Americas, “another group of people were gathered here and they too were listening to God.” (Mormons believe Native Americans to be a lost tribe of Israel, and, interestingly, this Mormon twist to Beck’s historiography has gone almost entirely unnoticed by commentators on the event, even those who point out that Beck’s Mormon faith is regarded as heresy by evangelical Christians.) Jews and Indians were united by the Pilgrims, whom provenance led to these shores. “When people came together of different faiths in the spirit of God,” Beck concluded, “and the first thing they did was pray together.”

Again, taken literally, this is patently ridiculous. A lot of genocide preceded the happy union of these disparate groups. But the gloss is rhetorically useful: Beck told rally goers that they were the true heirs to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and King because of their faith in God and embrace of Christian morality, not because of their race or support of specific policies.

Of course, Beck has a political agenda, as does Sarah Palin. But Beck knows that the stories we tell about ourselves and our values are far more enduring and more powerful than any campaign. Regardless of his personal racial attitudes and those of his followers, he also recognizes that the language of faith is far more potent today than the language of race. (Which accounts, for example, for his recasting what he once called Obama’s “racism” as “liberation theology.”) Faith has long been an ingredient in conservative rhetoric, but Beck is laboring to expand its use to cover terrain long addressed through symbolism that was much more directly racially charged. Commentators who mistake it either as racism by another name or as an unfocused identity celebration vastly underestimate its potential impact on our politics.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.