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In Washington, Radio Host Beck Leads Religious Rally

Tens of thousands of people rallied at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, summoned by Glenn Beck, a conservative broadcaster who called for a religious rebirth in America at the site where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech 47 years ago to the day.

US Capitol Building at dawn
Allan Baxter | Digital Vision | Getty Images
US Capitol Building at dawn

“Something that is beyond man is happening,” Mr. Beck said in opening the event as the crowd thronged near the memorial grounds. “America today begins to turn back to God.”

It was part religious revival, part history lecture, as Mr. Beck invoked the founding fathers and the “black-robed regiment” of pastors of the Revolutionary War and spoke of American exceptionalism.

The crowd was a mix of groups that have come together under the Tea Party umbrella. Some wore T-shirts from the Campaign for Liberty, the libertarian group that came out of the presidential campaign of Representative Ron Paul, while others wore the gear of their local Tea Party group, or of 9/12 groups, which were founded after a special broadcast Mr. Beck did in March 2009.

But the program was distinctly different from most Tea Party rallies. While Tea Party groups have said they want to focus on fiscal conservatism and not risk alienating people by talking about religion or social issues, the rally on Saturday was overtly religious, filled with gospel music and speeches that were more like sermons.

Mr. Beck imbued his remarks on Saturday and at events the night before with references to God and a need for a religious revival.

“For too long, this country has wandered in darkness,” Mr. Beck said Saturday. “This country has spent far too long worrying about scars and thinking about scars and concentrating on scars. Today, we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things that we have accomplished, and the things that we can do tomorrow.”

Mr. Beck was followed on stage by Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate and former Alaska governor, who said she was asked, in keeping with the theme of the day, not to focus on politics but to speak as the mother of a soldier.

“Say what you want to say about me, but I raised a combat vet, and you can’t take that away from me,” said Ms. Palin, whose son Track served in Iraq.

But Ms. Palin did not steer entirely clear of politics. In a veiled reference to President Obama and his pledges to fundamentally transform America, she said, “We must not fundamentally transform America as some would want; we must restore America and restore her honor.”

Many in the crowd said they had never been to a Tea Party rally, but they described themselves as avid Glenn Beck fans, and many said they had been motivated to come by faith.

Becky Benson, 56, traveled from Orlando, Fla., because, she said, “we believe in Jesus Christ, and he is our savior.” Jesus, she said, would not have agreed with what she called the redistribution of wealth in the form of the economic stimulus package, bank bailouts and welfare. “You cannot sit and expect someone to hand out to you,” she said. “You don’t spend your way out of debt.”

Mr. Beck’s themes were ones he returns to on his radio and television shows, and people in the crowd echoed his ideas, saying that “progressives” were moving the country toward socialism and that the country must get back to a strict interpretation of the Constitution, which would limit the role of the federal government and do away with entitlement programs.

“The federal government is only to offer us protection from our enemies and help us when we need it,” said Ron Sears, 65, who came on a caravan of three buses from Corbin, Ky. “The states are supposed to control education and everything having to do with their citizens, except when they need federal help.”

Mr. Beck billed the event as the Woodstock of this generation, telling listeners that for decades, people would be asking, “Were you there?”

He had instructed his fans to leave their protest signs at home and to bring their children.

While there were few signs, people carried American flags or yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” banners, which have become mainstays at Tea Party rallies.

The event had the feeling of a large church picnic, with people sitting on lawn chairs and blankets with coolers and strollers. The crowd stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. No official crowd estimate was made; organizers put it as high as 500,000.

The rally organized by Mr. Beck, a Fox News broadcaster who has been harshly critical of Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats, has come under attack as dishonoring the memory of Dr. King by staging the event on the anniversary of his speech. Critics have suggested that Mr. Beck was trying to energize conservatives for the coming midterm elections.

Across town, several hundred people packed a football field at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School to stage a rally commemorating Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“We come here because the dream has not been achieved,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, an organizer of the rally. “We’ve had a lot of progress. But we have a long way to go.”

“They want to disgrace this day,” Mr. Sharpton told the crowd, referring to Mr. Beck’s event.

While the crowd at Dunbar was mostly African-American, the audience at Mr. Beck’s rally was overwhelmingly white, though a number of speakers and performers were black.

Among them was Alveda King, a niece of the civil rights leader, who in a speech said that if Dr. King were alive he would commend the organizers of the event and “would encourage us to lay aside the vicious lies that cause us to think we are members of separate races.”

Mr. Beck made a surprise visit on Friday to a convention held by FreedomWorks, a Tea Party umbrella group, for Tea Party supporters. He received a thunderous welcome from a crowd of about 1,600 in Constitution Hall.

He told the crowd that he had begun planning his march on Washington a year ago, thinking “it was supposed to be political.”

“And then I kind of feel like God dropped a giant sandbag on my head,” he said.

“My role, as I see it, is to wake America up to the backsliding of principles and values and most of all of God,” he said. “We are a country of God. As I look at the problems in our country, quite honestly, I think the hot breath of destruction is breathing on our necks and to fix it politically is a figure that I don’t see anywhere.”

Raymond Hernandez contributed reporting.