If I could meet Glenn Beck

There’s no denying it, Glenn Beck has stirred up our politics and public life. I think that’s a good thing. Many people may want to condemn him. I want to meet him. I want to ask him some basic questions and use this moment to engage more Americans in a conversation about the kind of country they want. Here’s why.

I listened to a good portion of Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally on the Washington Mall where tens of thousands of people gathered to hear a collection of political and religious leaders, among others, speak about America’s need to “return to God.“ The rally took place on the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and repeatedly invoked King’s memory.

There are some people who assert that Beck has besmirched King’s legacy. That he dishonored King, leveraged King’s notoriety for his own personal gain and distorted King’s meaning. While I understand these views, I fear that they are too defensive – they neither seek to illuminate nor engage, only to stymie and block a necessary discussion. King’s legacy has endured because its content was so right in 1963 and remains so as times have changed.

Beck’s rally was one of the few times in my memory the entire nation has focused on MLK other than on MLK Day each year. At last there is an opportunity to talk about MLK – not the enshrinement of his memory, or the activities we gin up in his honor, but the living meaning of his words. King’s words summon us to step forward and act on behalf of all people – not just some. So, with Beck’s rally, isn’t now the time to take stock of where we have made progress, and where there is still work still to be done? Isn’t now the time to be clear on the steps we must take to have the kind of nation King envisioned?

My growing fear is that the country finds itself in a place where when someone puts forth ideas we disagree with, the immediate response is to say how aggrieved and offended we are; to become defensive; to cast others as evil-doers. But where does this really get us?

Too many of our public discussions have become more about validating ourselves rather than examining ourselves. About buttressing our own arguments and points of view rather than engaging with others – especially those who seem different from us. Too often our tactic is to shut out or shout down our “opponents.”

I do not for a moment believe that everyone is a saint and acts with good intentions; but nor do I believe that we must fear engagement on the tough and emotional issues of the day. We must not hide from the need to engage with one another if we truly seek progress.

Beck’s rally suggests that there are Americans who feel the country is spinning out of control, who believe we have lost our moral bearings, who want to hold onto to certain basic values. But I suspect the same can be said about the numerous folks who gathered with the Rev. Al Sharpton at a counter-rally that took place on Saturday in Washington, D.C. Many Americans feel that things have spun out of control.

My question to Beck is not simply about his views, but about where he thinks there might be common ground with other Americans on how we can move ahead. I don’t care very much about his religious views (or his critique of President Obama’s religious views, about which he has spoken extensively), but about what his religious views teach him about reaching out to the poor, the disenfranchised, the hungry. I don’t want to hear Beck talk more about his own personal trials, but about what we need to do about the children and families who remain vulnerable in our communities.

I could spend all my time condemning Glenn Beck and some people would cheer me on. Instead, I’d like to engage Glenn Beck. The content of our character is how we respond to those with whom we disagree, or who may have hurt us, or who frighten us, or who hold power over us, or who we simply do not understand. I’m sure there are some things Beck said that I disagree with; others that I support. Either way, I want to meet him.