In the past, more secular Tea Party types might not have showed up at a religiously-themed event like “Restoring Honor.” Similarly, many of the devoutly religious people I met at Saturday’s rally probably would in the past have shunned an explicitly political event such as Friday night’s Freedom Works meeting. But I kept bumping into the same people at both gatherings.

“I happen to be opposed to gay marriage, but our peril is so great that goes on the back burner,” Debbie Johnson of Georgia told me on Saturday. Bruce Majors, a gay real-estate agent from Washington D.C., had a different take. He told me earlier this year that he felt perfectly comfortable working with the Tea Party on bringing the size of government under control. “We’re both about freedom and we have a common short-term goal,” he said. Indeed, in Washington this past weekend the more libertarian and the more socially conservative elements of the Tea Party seemed to get along just fine.

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To this rally-goer, though, the most striking thing about “Restoring Honor” 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…

In a sense, Beck’s “Restoring Honor” was like an Obama rally through the looking glass. It was a long festival of affirmation for middle-class white Christians — square, earnest, patriotic and religious. If a speaker had suddenly burst out with an Obama-esque “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” the message would have fit right in…

For a weekend, at least, Beck proved that he can conjure the thrill of a culture war without the costs of combat, and the solidarity of identity politics without any actual politics. If his influence outlasts the current election cycle, this will be the secret of his success.

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