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Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart, and the Science of the Jeremiad

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Both history and science predict the rallies by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will be ill-fated.

As the ever-churning news cycle turned Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” event into a fading memory, the planned combined rallies by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert set for this weekend have cast an even brighter light on the original August gathering. Replete with ironies—not the least of which is that the two progressive comedians continue to be reactive—by titling their events “Rally to Restore Sanity” and “March to Keep Fear Alive,” Stewart and Colbert have framed Beck’s original assembly as both reason-lacking and fearmongering.

There is some truth to both of these charges, but, again ironically, the two funnymen have unwittingly betrayed an inability to grasp the purpose and precedent of Beck’s march and, in particular, his speech. With a history stretching back to the landing of the Puritans at Plymouth, Beck offered the quintessential American oration, combining both revelation and alarm: the jeremiad.

Alexis de Tocqueville counted religion as the nation’s chief law enforcer.

In wonderment, the great chronicler of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, discovered that a people so free were nonetheless scrupulously law-abiding and generally moral. In the absence of voluminous laws and numerous police, the Frenchman counted religion as the nation’s chief law enforcer, noting, “Religion, which, among the Americans, never mixes directly in the government of society, should therefore be considered as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not give them the taste for freedom, it singularly facilitates their use of it.” Americans not only respected the law out of fear of the cops, but because, to quote the old Hebrew National hotdog commercial, “We [answered] to a higher authority.”

Throughout America’s history, it has been precisely this combined understanding of religion’s “political” power in supporting the mores of self-governance, as well as the institutional separation of church and state, that has prompted both religious and political leaders from a variety of sects and parties to deliver the jeremiad during times of actual or perceived crisis. In his book, The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism, American historian George McKenna defines the jeremiad as rhetoric that “is meant to shock the congregation into recognizing the enormity of their sin … but is also meant to remind them that God chastens those he loves.”

Jeremiads have been presented by the country’s greatest orators—from John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” through Lincoln’s “an almost chosen people” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream”. They have also been given by some of our less-gifted speakers, such as President Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” (aka, “Malaise”) address. Though not as eloquent as Lincoln or King, Glenn Beck’s speech at his “Restoring Honor” event was an obvious example of this genre.

Moral and cooperative conduct can either be enforced from without, through law enforcement, or from within, through accountability to a concerned supernatural being.

True to the jeremiad’s rhetorical structure, Beck began his speech by situating it in a spiritual realm at a time of national testing, then challenged the listener that only through personal piety will the country survive. Saying that his talk had “nothing to do with politics; it has everything to do with God,” (his later partisan comments notwithstanding) Beck followed by proclaiming that “America is at a crossroads … we must advance or perish.” Weaved throughout the speech is this interplay between individual behavior and national, even global salvation. At an interesting point in the oration, Beck invites, “if you choose to change your life … we will change the world.”

Quoting widely from the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, and inscriptions on various monuments, Beck continuously refers his listeners to a deity who is omnipresent and omnipotent, who is concerned about individual actions, and who is capable both of punishment and blessing.  We must “recognize that he [God] is our king,” Beck implores, and “that he is the one who guides and protects us.” A Mormon surrounded onstage by priests, pastors, rabbis, and imams, Beck gives one of the more ecumenical jeremiads in history. Qualifying that, “this isn’t about one church or one faith over another, it is about the eternal principles of God,” Beck can still say that even though the religious leaders “don’t agree on fundamentals … what they do agree on is God is the answer.”

Rumors swirl regarding what Stewart and Colbert will do in their response to Beck. If their intent is to deal more rationally with the condition of the “American experiment,” perhaps they will cite a recent scientific research study, which appears to have come to eerily similar conclusions as those of the theological talk show host.

An agnostic psychologist appears to come to a similar conclusion as Glenn Beck: that a belief in an engaged supernatural being is essential to the ordering of a democratic society.

A world away from the crowded, sun-drenched Mall—in a quiet laboratory in Northern Ireland to be exact—a research study led by a once-atheistic, now, apparently, agnostic psychologist appears to come to the similar conclusion as the aforementioned talk show host: that a belief in an engaged supernatural being is essential to the ordering of a democratic society. Though studied through the lens of evolutionary psychology, the results point just as clearly to political science as social science. As reported by National Public Radio, Dr. Jesse Bering at the Queen’s University in Belfast has recently issued the results of a behavioral study involving a group of children between the ages of five and nine.

The experiment involved the young participants playing a game in which they had to land a Velcro ball on a Velcro dartboard. In doing so, the successful players would receive a specified prize, but there were rules: the kids had to throw with their nondominant hand, with their backs facing the target. These hurdles made winning almost impossible… without cheating.

With this as the baseline challenge, the kids were divided into three groups. One group could play the game unsupervised (except for the researchers behind the two-way mirror), the second group had a researcher sit in the corner of the game room watching the action, and a third group was told that sitting in an empty chair in the corner of the room was an imaginary figure, “Princess Alice.” As the NPR piece describes, “Princess Alice, the kids were told, had a magical power: Alice could make herself invisible. Then the children were shown a chair and were told that Alice was sitting in the chair and that Alice would watch them play the game after the researcher left.”

Tom Friedman pleads for greater collaboration and cooperation based on America’s unique “get-it-done” history and culture—a tough rhetorical tightrope to walk.

What Bering and his team discovered is that while the “unsupervised” group cheated the most, there was no significant difference in the lower levels of trickery practiced by the second and third groups. As the article goes on to state, “A similar study Bering did with adults showed the same thing—that they were dramatically less likely to cheat when they thought they were being observed by a supernatural presence.”

Again, these researchers are studying this behavior as a means of deciphering whether religious faith has evolutionary underpinnings, but when the radio story concludes, “a belief in God serves a very important purpose: Religious belief set us on the path to modern life by stopping cheaters and promoting the social good,” one hears the faint, if antiseptic, strains of the jeremiad.

The study also reveals a policy point related to human nature. Moral and cooperative conduct can either be enforced from without, through law enforcement, or from within, through accountability to a concerned supernatural being. Free societies demand the latter in order to avoid the former: it is either “Princess Alice” or Dog the Bounty Hunter.

If moral and cooperative behavior is to be considered more progressive in human terms, it appears that the jeremiad is as much scientific statement as a religious one. Of course, some have tried to thread this needle by calling for a secular “civic republicanism.” From the left, Michael Tomasky has been one of the leading voices for this concept, writing fairly recently in the American Prospect, “What’s at the core of this worldview isn’t ideology. It’s something more innately human: faith. Not religious faith. Faith in America and its potential to do good.”

One can see similar civic republican elements in Tom Friedman’s anxiety-ridden columns about the rise of China. Writing from the sparkling Chinese city of Tianjin, Freidman recently declares the reason for making a series of favorable comparisons to America: “I am not praising China because I want to emulate their system. I am praising it because I am worried about my system. In deliberately spotlighting China’s impressive growth engine, I am hoping to light a spark under America.”

Is the New York Times’ columnist fearmongering? Friedman sounds Beckian as he lists the reasons behind America’s lagging: “We’re not doing it now because too many of our poll-driven, toxically partisan, cable-TV-addicted, money-corrupted political class are more interested in what keeps them in power than what would again make America powerful, more interested in defeating each other than saving the country.” Friedman, like Tomasky, pleads for greater collaboration and cooperation based on America’s unique “get-it-done” history and culture—an appeal to realize the nation’s exceptionalism by hearkening to a past exceptionalism—a tough rhetorical tightrope to walk. As the previously quoted McKenna responds, “The problem is that every time we examine those ideals in any depth, we find them integrally connect to Judeo-Christianity.” And as the research by Bering and his team suggests, if not one of the Abrahamic religions, the faith that best promotes collaboration and ethical behavior, must be placed in a being that is concerned with personal actions and strong enough to justly bless or curse—an amorphous “Faith in America” doesn’t quite fit that bill.

Somewhere in Manhattan and Los Angeles, around tables strewn with empty pizza boxes, teams of comedy writers are crafting what Jon Stewart has dubbed his “clarion call to rationality.” Judging by his announcement of the event, it will be a jeremiad of sorts: a call to the ever-present “silent majority” to counter the angry “15–20 percent” to find solutions cooperatively during a period when “real people are facing very real problems.” But, disconnected from any larger spiritual framework—whether that be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or “Princess Alice”—both history and science predict the effort will be ill-fated.

Pete Peterson is executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine School of Public Policy.

FURTHER READING: Peterson also wrote "On L.A. Sidewalks: A Keynesian Cautionary Tale (for Both Parties)" and Edward Feser introduces "The New Philistinism." Michael Barone demystifies "America in an Age of Open Field Politics" and Steven Hayward discusses "The Irrelevance of Modern Political Science."
Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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