Glenn Beck is better than most nationally syndicated talk hosts. While right-wing radio mainstays Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity offer little more than Republican talking points, Beck regularly eschews such hackery, instead warning of the “progressivism” that exists in both parties or even the perils of blind partisanship. It’s hard even to fathom Limbaugh or Hannity saying what Beck did at CPAC this year, “I have not heard the people in the Republican Party yet admit they have a problem… I don’t know what they stand for anymore.” But after last weekend, I’m not quite sure what Beck thinks the Tea Party should stand for anymore either.

Beck called his event a “Restoring Honor” rally. Estimates say around 100,000 Tea Party types gathered in Washington, D.C. on Saturday to accomplish, well, no one really knows. Conservative darling Sarah Palin said a whole lot of nothing, as did Beck and a slew of other hosts who seemed genuinely excited that so many people could come together, even if none of them really seemed to know why. Much like Obama’s promises of “hope” and “change,” the platitudes offered at Beck’s event were empty, making the event like a right-wing Woodstock. The New York Times Ross Douthat aptly described why those who attended found it so groovy: “Americans love leaders who seem to validate their way of life… The Obama campaign raised it to an art form, convincing voters that by merely supporting his candidacy, they were proving themselves cosmopolitan and young-at-heart, multicultural and hip. 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.”

Douthat is correct — Beck’s rally was essentially a self-affirming Tea Party love-in. Contrived and confused, even the title of the event raised the question — what, exactly, does “Restoring Honor” mean anyway? What truly needs restoring is some direction.

As with the Obama phenomenon in the last election, identity politics has been an obvious aspect of the Tea Party, something the Left perceives as racist and many on the Right, refreshing. The idea of so many middle-class whites, many Christian — the traditional Republican base — coming together en masse to question their party and reexamine first principles is a liberating concept, not to mention long overdue. After decades of politicians’ empty promises and cyclical talk-radio bitching, the Tea Party seemed like a grassroots Right finally ticked off enough to demand results, roll some heads, and “take their country back,” with a hard focus on impending economic doom.

As is always the case with populism, any real movement is naturally going to be made up of real people, some of whom might hold wacky signs or become obsessed with conspiracies. The extent to which Beck himself behaved wacky or was prone to conspiracy theories — “politically schizophrenic” is probably the best description — was always less important than his willingness to encourage and aid the Tea Party in general, corralling the masses in the right direction, demanding that they keep an eye on the big-government wings of both parties. So long as anti-government sentiment was the overriding Tea Party narrative, it remained healthy — and so long as the trivial remained such it was tolerable, becoming not much more than irrelevant fodder for the Left.

So what in God’s name — quite literally — was the purpose of the Promise Keepers-lite event Beck held last weekend? It would be one thing if it were simply another trivial distraction — but the overt religiosity on display could spell doom for a movement with the potential to unite more Americans against government spending than even the Tea Party’s harshest critics are willing to admit. Independents and disaffected Democrats, atheists and agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Eskimos, virtually every political, religious, or cultural category imaginable could feasibly unite under a fiscal-restraint-minded Tea Party banner. But some new Moral Majority? That there is a religious or even Christian subtext to “who” the Tea Party is is a necessary, unavoidable, and perhaps even attractive aspect of the movement. But the moment religion becomes an explicit part of the program — and Beck’s rally was certainly heading in that direction — it negates and severely limits the movement’s primary goal of eliminating government and debt.

A movement born of identity politics (at least in part) must mature philosophically if it wishes to become serious in its limited-government desires. Beck’s rally actually caused me to question the Tea Party’s seriousness. The further embrace of identity politics — which is exactly what Beck’s rally was — is a step in the wrong direction precisely because it’s a throwback to the same old partisanship that has historically comforted conservatives while government continues to grow. This writer has never had a problem with an influential pundit like Beck being all over the place politically so long as he always generally ended up in the right place — but unfortunately, with his “Restoring Honor” rally, Glenn Beck was closer to taking the Tea Party back to the George W. Bush years than any constitutional revival.