Glenn Beck, noted right-wing political pundit and Mormon convert, has recently been dubbed “Fox News’s Mad, Apocalyptic, Tearful Rising Star” by Brian Stelter and Bill Carter of the NY Times (ht: Paul Harvey). Casting him as a conservative “revivalist in a troubled land,” the writers note that Beck’s rhetoric is often more akin to a preacher than a reporter.
He preaches against politicians, hosts regular segments titled “Constitution Under Attack” and “Economic Apocalypse,” and occasionally breaks into tears.
Michael Smerconish, a fellow syndicated talk show host, said that Mr. Beck “has a gift for touching the passion nerve.”
Tapping into fear about the future, Mr. Beck also lingers over doomsday situations; in a series called “The War Room” last month he talked to experts about the possibility of global financial panic and widespread outbreaks of violence. He challenged viewers to “think the unthinkable” so that they would be prepared in case of emergency.
“The truth is — that you are the defender of liberty,” he said. “It’s not the government. It’s not an army or anybody else. It’s you. This is your country.”
Curiously absent in an article examining the almost-religious rhetoric of a man paid to talk about politics is any mention of Beck’s religion—that is, his Mormonism. As I mentioned in a comment over on the Religion in U.S. History blog, such a topic deserves further analysis. It seems to me that Beck is tapping into Mormon millenarian beliefs and/or fears that have waned in popularity ever since the days of Cleon Skousen’s political fearmongering and Ezra Taft Benson’s pointed discourses gave way to a less political (or at least less openly political) church leadership. The topics Beck regularly addresses, as noted in the Times article, include economic apocalypse and the contitution being under attack—favorite topics of both Skousen and Benson 40-50 years ago. Similarly, Beck narrates U.S. history as a story of a Christian nation battling the destructive forces of open secularism and ever-encroaching socialism.
All of this plays into Beck’s portrayal of himself and like-minded Americans as “an embattled minority” battling the not-so-subtle forces that are destoying the mythological Christian nation they so dearly love. His recently-launched 9/12 Project is open and upfront in its declarations that Judeo-Christian morality and values are central to America’s future success as a nation. That such an approach resonates with many conservative Mormons here in the United States is not terribly surprising to me. Christian nationalism, suspicion of government, and values-based voting have all lingered to different degrees within the Mormon cultural region for decades. But Mormon viewership alone does not account for Beck’s enormous cult following and consistently-high ratings. This is especially noteworthy for someone (like Beck) who is so open about his conversion to Mormonism and his love for his church.
Additionally, as noted elsewhere, the suggested reading list Beck provides for his acolytes includes Skousen’s The 5,000 Year Leap and Jay Parry’s biographies of America’s Founding Fathers. He has tapped into Mormon prophetic folklore, articulating such beliefs as the “constitution hanging by a thread.” And the 9 Principles and 12 Values articulated by Beck, while not necessarily Mormon ideals, do strike me as “Mormon” to some degree.
All of this raises a lot of interesting questions. Other than a relatively recent skirmish over an article written by Beck being pulled from Focus on the Family’s website, Beck’s Mormonism does not seem to have hindered his popularity among many grass-roots activists on the right (a group that includes numerous evangelicals). While Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, at least in part, derailed his campaign for the U.S. Presidency last year, Beck’s religiosity has received relatively little attention and/or criticism from the politically-conservative, anti-Mormon crowd. How do we account for such divergent reactions to Mormonism?
Also interesting, and deserving of further analysis IMO, is Beck’s effect on shaping, shifting, and/or reinforcing the political thought of Mormons across the United States. He seems to be quite successful in raising anew the popular fears of yesteryear—the once widespread dual threats of secularism and socialism that resonated with American Mormons of the mid-twentieth century. In doing so, he utilizes apocalyptic imagery and doomsday scenarios popularized in Mormon thought and folklore, and thus presents a somewhat unique brand of modern Mormon millenarianism. If my suppositions are correct (and they are admittedly based mostly on my own anecdotal evidence) that Beck is popular among Mormons and that he is instrumental to some degree in shaping the political thought of those Mormons, what does that reveal about the church as a community (or communities)?