It’s rare that an event can provoke columns that carry such contradictory teasers as “Don’t ridicule Glenn Beck’s tribute to MLK: Celebrate it” and “Drowning out the hate hustlers: Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck cannot steal America’s soul.”

The first comes from Slate’s William Saletan, responding to critics who decried the tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. during Saturday’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial by asserting, “There’s nothing unseemly about the right’s embrace of King. This is America at its best: A man once disowned as a partisan and a rebel now belong to all of us… Their invocations of his legacy were sustained and serious. They affirmed his central message—equality—and grouped him with the country’s Founding Fathers.”

The second comes from Stanley Crouch’s column in the New York Daily News, which he begins, “Now that irresponsible opportunists have brought many of the misled to Washington, we can begin to contemplate what makes bigotry so appealing. Surely, being able to exclude is one of the great joys of the species because it can give a grand identity to the average person. That identity as one of the elect made the red glow in Southern white necks.”

While blasting the event’s main speakers, Crouch did not attack them for their words that day. Instead, he attacked them for earlier “race-bating as clearly as they could” around the controversy of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. He would have been hard-pressed to attack the speakers on the podium, for Beck delivered a pageant that scrupulously avoided any hint of racism. As Saletan notes, in addition to the embrace of King there were references to injustices done to Native Americans.

But even if spokespeople had never made comments that could be construed as racist, it would be understandable for critics to be on the lookout for racism. This was unquestionably an event about dividing an “us” from a “them,” and race has historically been a key dividing line in the modern conservative movement. Nixon mobilized white opposition to busing, and Reagan did so around welfare. While it would be simplistic to say that the conservative coalitions these men built were merely racist, it is unquestionably true that racial grievances helped crystallize opposition to interventionist government.

Faced with scrupulously multi-racial rhetoric, observers struggled to describe the identity articulated by the event. Also writing in Slate, Christopher Hitchens contextualizes the event against the backdrop of demographic change that eventually will make whites the minority. “The overall effect was large, vague, moist, and undirected: the Waterworld of white self-pity,” he wrote, attempting to connect the day’s imagery with identity anxiety. Struggling to be more precise, he used a revealing rhetorical slight of hand:

In a rather curious and confused way, some white people are starting almost to think like a minority, even like a persecuted one. What does it take to believe that Christianity is an endangered religion in America or that the name of Jesus is insufficiently spoken or appreciated? Who wakes up believing that there is no appreciation for our veterans and our armed forces and that without a noisy speech from Sarah Palin, their sacrifice would be scorned?

Is it the same to be Christian or pro-military as it is to be white?

Taken literally, that is patently ridiculous: across town on Saturday, Rev. Al Sharpton and many other Christian African Americans were holding a tribute to another black Christian, Martin Luther King, Jr. And, of course, people of color serve disproportionately in the armed forces. But faith and pro-military sentiments were offered up at “Restoring Honor” to the crowd of conservative white rally-goers as touchstones of their identity.

As a Christian and a conservative, The New York Times’s Ross Douthat was much more sympathetic to the event than Christopher Hitchens, but he was similarly at a loss to explain Glenn Beck’s identity pageant. “This was a tent revival crossed with a pep rally intertwined with a history lecture married to a U.S.O. telethon,” that combined into “a long festival of affirmation for middle-class white Christians.”

Douthat particularly grasped to explain the event’s politics: he bought Beck’s claim that the rally was “apolitical” because there was no rhetoric or signs about candidates or legislation. “The most striking thing about ‘Restoring Honor’,” he wrote, “was the way the pageant effortlessly tapped into the same rich vein of identity politics that has given us figures as diverse as Palin and Howard Dean, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — but did so, somehow, without advancing any explicitly political agenda.”

Taken literally, this is as ridiculous as the conclusion that all Christians are white. Though cloaked in the language of prayer and boosterism, there were plenty of references to issues, including abortion, marriage, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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.