by Robert A. Rees
Illustrations by Jeanette Atwood
Through anger, the truth looks simple.
It must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.
The “Real” Glenn Beck
Ever since learning that Glenn Beck had joined the Mormon Church, I’ve been trying to understand who he is, what he does, and how his conversion to Mormonism has influenced him personally and professionally. Beck is an enigma, a chameleon, a shape-shifter, continually reinventing himself. He has gone from “zoo radio”cut-up, to stand-up comedian, to political commentator/entertainer, to Fox News firebrand, to cheerleader of a populist anti-government movement, to a modern-day Cassandra prophesying doom and destruction for a nation allegedly in the thrall of progressivism. A Latter-day Saint friend of mine calls him “a cross between a professional wrestler and a televangelist,” and some critics see him as the Barnum and Bailey of right-wing broadcast media. Conservative commentator Mark Levin remarked recently, “I have no idea what philosophy Glenn Beck is promoting. And neither does he. It’s incoherent. One day it’s populist, the next it’s libertarian bordering on anarchy, next it’s conservative but not really.”3 Senator Robert Byrd’s recent characterization of certain Republican politicians’ “rantings” as “barkings from the nether regions of Glennbeckistan”4 suggests the extent to which Beck’s notoriety has become a part of popular culture.
Beck has constructed a universe where the U.S. is under siege by progressives plotting to transform the nation into a socialist or—worse—communist or fascist state. Using innuendo, chop logic, guilt by association, conspiracy theories, progressive and liberal bogeymen, and what seems a carefully cultivated image of righteous indignation, Beck presents himself as today’s Paul Revere, warning the countryside that the enemy is at the gate (or, in Beck’s words, actually “in the house”).
In his broadcasts, Beck uses all the tools of a showman propagandist: he makes absurd comparisons, uses false analogies, tells whopping “stretchers” (Huckleberry Finn’s term for statements with little regard for fact or truth), weeps on cue (YouTube footage shows him swiping Mentholatum under his eyes to induce tears), and lapses into sophomoric lampooning, mocking, ridicule, sarcasm, taunting, and joking. At times, his TV show resembles a circus side show. Alex Koppelman observes, “He laughs and cries; he pouts and giggles; he makes funny faces and grins like a cartoon character; he makes earnest faces yet insists he is a clown; he cavorts like a victim of St. Vitus’s Dance. His means of communicating are, in other words, so wide-ranging as to suggest derangement as much as versatility.”5
What’s particularly seductive about Beck’s performance is that he wears many masks, which he deftly changes, alternately engaging, mesmerizing, and enflaming his audience, making them laugh one minute and inciting them to storm the Bastille the next. This mixture of clownish behavior and apparent deadly seriousness accounts for Beck’s appeal to a certain portion of the United States populace. His charm, boyish good looks, adolescent pranks, and jokes keep viewers entertained so that when he takes aim at the latest “progressive” crime or whatever he sees as the most recent threat to freedom and free enterprise, his audience is ready to follow him to the outer edge of outrage. Beck describes his shtick as a “fusion” of entertainment and enlightenment. And it’s effective. When he shifts into his latest example of evil or corruption in the White House or Congress, his followers are ready to beat their plowshares into swords and join his crusade. In fact, he used to open his show by repeating the words of Jesus to his disciples: “Come, follow me.”
Beck now begins his TV show with a montage of patriotic images—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King Jr., the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. His carefully constructed persona, balanced precariously between respectability and irascibility, is enhanced through his wardrobe—shirt, tie and jacket, blue jeans and tennis shoes. His most important prop is a blackboard on which he scribbles, pastes photos, and juxtaposes ominous images (Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Che Guvera—and his main target, Barack Obama). Beck poses as the professor of a populist uprising, teaching the “real” American history and warning viewers how Obama endangers their freedom and security.
It is important to note that some of the issues Beck addresses are legitimate—corruption in high places, abuse of power, misuse of federal funds, excessive governmental control, and Wall Street greed. But how such issues are addressed can either resolve or exacerbate them. Beck has a propensity to polarize rather than unify, demonize rather than humanize, and sow discord rather than promote dialogue.
All of this might be the story of one more charismatic, right-wing media personality whom Mormons might find either persuasive or repulsive, except Beck is a Latter-day Saint—the most visible and controversial one in the nation. He’s better known than President Thomas S. Monson or football star Steve Young and more popular than Harry Reid or Mitt Romney. His daily radio program, carried on 280 stations, has 6.5 million listeners; his television program on Fox has 3 million viewers;6 and his website, GlennBeck.com, receives more than a million visitors a month. In a recent Harris Poll, Beck finished second only to Oprah Winfrey as America’s “favorite TV personality.”7 But Beck’s followers may be more politically engaged and influential than Winfrey’s. According to a December 2009 Gallup poll, Beck ranks just below Nelson Mandela and above Pope Benedict as the most admired person in the United States.8 In April 2010, Time listed Beck as one of the 100 “people who most affect our world.”9
Some of Beck’s popularity results from his shameless self-promotion. On radio, TV, and Internet, he urges people to buy his books, subscribe to his newsletter, buy his CD’s and videos, and attend his public appearances, whether live or via satellite. One recent promotion is for his new venture, “Insider Extreme,” a “new six-camera broadcast quality stream of the radio program,” with “more cameras, more truth, more Glenn.” The promotional come-on for potential subscribers (only $6.26 a month) is “Want to be happy?” Forbes magazine praises Beck for being able to “monetize virtually everything.”10
Latter-day Saints display a range of attitudes toward Beck. For some, his being Mormon is enough for them to like him; for others, his Mormon identity only increases their antipathy. As one blogger observed, “Glenn Beck is a complex figure, especially for Mormons.”11
In a Sunstone article titled “Glen Beck, Cleon Skousen, Amerigo Vespucci, & Me,” Eric Samuelsen writes, “A large number of Utahns have been watching Glenn Beck, and taking him very seriously indeed.” Speaking of the Obama/Democrat health care bill, Samuelsen observes, “For many of my LDS brothers and sisters, ‘Obamacare’ is a catastrophe, the apocalypse, the end of everything good. I’ve felt for years that the best guide to the Mormon zeitgeist is the letters-to-the-editor page of the Deseret News. If that’s true, then Utah Mormons are collectively losing their cool. President Obama is routinely described as a socialist, a fascist, a Maoist and a communist and his administration as something dark and seductively satanic. Our nation is descending into chaos and anarchy; we’re in the Last Days; we’re just about beyond redemption.”12
Although Beck’s broadcasts often reflect Mormon beliefs, practices, jargon, and symbols, he has positioned himself to speak the same language to Mormons as to conservative Christians (many of whom consider Mormonism a non-Christian cult). On a recent show, he said, “I’m a gospel-believing brother.” When Beck invokes the founders of the United States and framers of the Constitution, most viewers don’t realize that, as Mormon scholar Joanna Brooks points out, such ideas stem from Beck’s Mormonism: “It is likely that Beck owes his brand of Founding Father-worship to Mormonism, where reverence for the founders and the United States Constitution as divinely inspired are often-declared elements of orthodox belief.”13
The more favorable Mormon views of Beck may spring from his portrayal in the Deseret Book DVD Unlikely Mormon: The Conversion Story of Glenn Beck or the many verbal and graphic allusions to Mormonism in his shows. Consider these comments from the Millennial Star blog:
I watched Unlikely Mormon Glenn Beck the other night and was really moved. I loved hearing his story! Everyone in my family was really inspired. I know some people’s personalities don’t mesh with Glenn’s, but as a person who has met him face to face, I have to say he has an incredible Spirit and desire to do good. I admire this greatly. Anyone who is courageous enough to take a stand like he does is worthy of respect in my book even if I didn’t completely agree with him.
I once met Beck after one of his shows a few years ago (back before all the security when he’d do free-for-all meet and greets), and I actually did feel the spirit. Pretty strong, too.14
Two recent Internet articles by Latter-day Saint writers portray Beck in a less favorable light. In “Mormon Like Me: Black Saints, Bigots, and Beck,” Margaret Blair Young writes of growing up in Provo during the sixties, the same time as Darius Gray, her black Latter-day Saint collaborator on the Standing on the Promises novels and the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. The political climate in Provo then made Darius and other blacks living there uncomfortable and sometimes fearful. Margaret recounts visiting a library with Darius in Marshall, Missouri, his ancestral home. As they left the library, she was stunned to see the 17 September 2009 Time magazine cover, with a full-color photo of Beck sticking his tongue out “like a petulant four-year-old”:
Why did Beck’s infantile sneer matter? Because Beck is a Mormon. Because his mocking presence in the small town of Marshall, Missouri, meant he was sticking his tongue out at patrons in every library in the nation. Because the city of Provo, Utah—where I still live and now teach—sometimes invites him to be part of our Freedom Festival and host our “Stadium of Fire,” as though his ultra right, self-assured conviction and his bifurcated view of contemporary issues comprise a worthy resume. Because he is a disciple of W. Cleon Skousen, whose conspiracy theories resulted in students spying on each other and on their professors at BYU and fomented terror and suspicion throughout Provo—even at Provo High—and created a climate which made Darius fear for his family’s life. Because Beck has said such race-baiting things as, “This president has exposed himself as a guy . . . who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture.”15
She further explains why Beck’s pose offends her:
He is inviting me and any who will listen to the world I was terrified of as a child, and which, by the time I was in high school, I realized was an outlandishly hokey creation—a world which invents and obsesses on cloaked conspiracies; a world which encourages racial division; a world which loops a soundbite (“Not God bless America . . . ”) and calls it an identity. A world which reduces the president to a well-spoken, “credit-to-his-race” guy who hates white people. He exhumes skeletons from our closets and coffins, and unholy passions from our past which should stay buried—or be instantly cremated if they still happen to yet be hovering. For me as a Mormon, Glenn Beck’s invitation to return to childish things forces me to confront anew the unsavory aspects of my religion’s past, and all the things we Latter-day Saints are now attempting to heal.16
Beck, Skousen, and the John Birch Society
Certainly Beck has been influential in resurrecting Skousen, and Skousen has influenced Beck. Beck’s biographer calls Skousen “The Man Who Changed Glenn Beck’s Life.”17 Beck has touted Skousen’s The Five Thousand Year Leap as a “must read” and speaks of his discovery of Skousen in terms most Mormons would associate with divine inspiration if not intervention. He says that walking down the Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan,
The answer came to me. It was so dramatic that it made me stop in the middle of the sidewalk. . . . The answer was obvious and[,] best of all, the thinking and worrying had already been done for me.18 The questions that we face were foreseen by the greatest group of Americans who ever lived; our Founding Fathers.
In language strangely evocative of Mormon feelings about the Book of Mormon, Beck adds, “They knew we would be grappling with issues like the ones we face today. . . . They knew that we would eventually lose our way and that we would need a beacon to lead our way back.”19 Several weeks after this “revelation” (as he calls it), Beck says, “A friend—without solicitation—sent me a copy” of Skousen’s book. Beck ends by telling readers in urgent, dramatic language, “You, me, all of us were born for this day, to stand responsible before God and future generations to keep this torch of freedom lit, and bear it away from ruin.”20
Such an appeal is seductive for Latter-day Saints who believe in personal revelation, America as a promised land, and the Constitution as divinely inspired. Some, however, especially older members who recall the negative influence Skousen and other right-wing conspiracy theorists had on the Church, might be more skeptical, more hesitant about jumping on the Beck bandwagon.
Beck speaks with great reverence for the Founding Fathers. His views are simplistic and idealistic, influenced no doubt by books published by the Skousen-founded National Center for Constitutional Studies: The Real George Washington, The Real Thomas Jefferson, and The Real Benjamin Franklin. Beck frequently cites these books.
In “What’s Going On at Fox News?” conservative commentator David Frum describes Skousen as “one of the legendary cranks of the conservative world, a John Bircher, a grand fantasist of theories about secret conspiracies between capitalists and communists to impose a one-world government under the control of David Rockefeller.”21 Beck has found such ideas attractive and has given them new expression.
Inevitably, with Skousen as mentor, Beck identifies with the John Birch Society and has been instrumental in its recent resurgence. In an interview with Society spokesman Sam Antonio, Beck said, “I have to tell you, when I was growing up, the John Birch Society, I thought they were a bunch of nuts; however, you guys are starting to make more and more sense to me.”22 In the Salon article “What’s Beck Doing with His Bigger Audience? Promoting Birchers,” Alex Koppelman calls Beck’s championing of the Birch Society “a blast from the radical past.”23
Apparently Beck is unaware that in 1963, the First Presidency stated: “We deplore the presumption of some politicians, especially officers, co-ordinators and members of the John Birch Society, who undertake to align the Church or its leadership with their partisan views.”24 Summarizing a meeting he’d held with Church president David O. McKay, President Hugh B. Brown wrote, “We agreed that we had done the right thing in letting the members of the Church and the world know that the Church does not in any way endorse or subscribe to the John Birch Society.”25 Later, when the Birch Society was working with Apostle Ezra Taft Benson to get President McKay’s photo on the cover of the Society’s American Opinion magazine, President McKay said emphatically, “I do not want anything to do with it. I do not want my name associated with John Birch.”26
I confess that my reaction to Beck may be influenced by the time Cleon Skousen was my teacher and the advisor to the BYU debate team, of which I was a member. The question we debated that year was “Should the United States Extend Recognition to Communist China?” Under Skousen’s sway, I also briefly believed in the dark, conspiratorial world he and others painted. I too was convinced that our country was on the precipice of a Communist overthrow, as Joe McCarthy had claimed a decade earlier. As did many Mormons back then, including Apostle Ezra Taft Benson, Beck seems to believe “in his heart, that creeping socialism, or growth in the size and scope of government, [will] ultimately end in a communist take-over of our Republic, whether from without, or from within.”27
Beck as Latter-day Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin
You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
—Joseph N. Welch to Senator Joseph McCarthy, Army-McCarthy hearings, 9 June 1954 28
Some see Beck’s tactics as similar to McCarthy’s, especially his propensity to see a socialist or communist bear behind every progressive bush and his “outing” of those he considers socialists and communists. In “Glenn Beck: Joe McCarthy Lives!” Los Angeles Times writer Bill Press sees striking similarities between McCarthy’s 1950s witch hunts and Beck’s activities today. Press cites Beck’s crusade against Van Jones, the man Obama selected as his “Green Czar”: “In 14 episodes of his show, Beck . . . paint[ed] Jones as a dangerous ‘communist-anarchist radical’ heading a vast radical/environ-mental/black nationalist takeover of America from within the Obama White House.” Press adds, “It was a page ripped right out of the book of Commie witch hunter Joseph McCarthy: personal attacks on little-known government officials based on nothing but lies, smears, and innuendo (‘Are you now, or have you ever been . . . ?’)—yet ultimately, just as successful. Within two weeks, Jones was forced to resign.”29
On 11 March 2010, explicitly invoking McCarthy, Beck accused President Franklin D. Roosevelt of hiring communists as government employees and praised McCarthy for working to root out such people: “It was Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy, who shined the spotlight on the Communist Party again. McCarthy later led a Senate committee investigation into inefficiencies in the government. Critics accused him of falsely identifying Communists, and smearing their names.”30 Beck’s characterization of McCarthy’s aims as “investigation into inefficiencies in government,” reveals deliberate distortion or colossal ignorance of what McCarthy’s destructive campaign was really about—and Beck’s segue from this observation to a discussion of the “domino theory” popular during the Cold War and his ominous, “Kind of feels like that now, doesn’t it?” is an example of his propensity to invent history both to attract and frighten his audience.
Older Latter-day Saints may remember the extent to which Mormons (especially those in Utah) were divided during the McCarthy era. Mormon Senator Arthur Watkins recalled the time he and McCarthy were members of the McCarran Internal Security Committee, charged with investigating possible communist infiltration of the federal government. Watkins was convinced that there was evidence of such infiltration but objected to McCarthy’s methods: “The great issue in McCarthyism was the way he ran wild. The people brought before him were not given a chance to defend themselves. They were pawns in his effort to obtain publicity.” Like Beck, McCarthy “condemned people as communists perhaps without submitting a shred of evidence.”31 Partly because of his role in the Senate censure of McCarthy, Watkins lost his bid for reelection. One of his opponents, J. Bracken Lee, “sent a telegram to the mass meeting of McCarthy supporters in New York saying that McCarthy deserved a medal rather than a censure.” Watkins said, “That kind of thing can happen in Utah.”32
An entire website (GlennMcCarthyBeck.com) is devoted to describing Beck’s McCarthy-like tactics, which are defined as “the politically motivated practice of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence.”33 Beck plays as fast and loose with the facts as McCarthy did, often relying on the slimmest connection or coincidence to build his case that sinister forces are at work in the government. Beck may potentially be more destructive than McCarthy was, as he mixes Christian end-of-times rhetoric with political and social fear-mongering. Certainly Beck has a much more powerful media megaphone with which to shout his alarm.
Some Latter-day Saints find Beck puzzling and disturbing because, although in an immensely influential position from which he could present to the world a reflection of the best of Mormonism, he has instead chosen to resurrect a past many of us thought we had outgrown or hoped to have kept buried. In that past, Mormon apostle and later Prophet Ezra Taft Benson nearly became the vice-presidential running mate of a racist white governor, George Wallace.34 Small wonder one commentator has called Beck “The Most Dangerous Demagogue since George Wallace!”35
Others have likened Beck to Father Charles Coughlin, the infamous Catholic firebrand whose popular 1930s radio program launched merciless attacks on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.36 In Harper Magazine’s “The Heirs of Father Coughlin,” Scott Horton observes, “The voices of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have much in common with Coughlin. But their message is distinct in many ways—they are not anti-Semitic, for example. And they have different targets for their hatred. But Beck and Limbaugh are more powerful than Coughlin ever was. They have tight ties to the Republican Party, and their messages quickly emerge as partisan political dogma.”37 “America saw and rejected this strain of paranoid politics before,” Horton continues, “but it was a test of the nation’s political mental health and stamina then. It likely will be so again.”38
A prime example of Beck’s Coughlin-like demagoguery is his unfounded characterization of President Obama as someone who “over and over again” has expressed “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” When challenged, Beck replied, “He has a problem. This guy is, I believe, a racist.”39 These words are akin to those Beck said to Representative-elect Keith Ellison (D-MN), America’s first Muslim congressman: “What I feel like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’ I’m not accusing you of being an enemy, but that’s the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.”40
Such rhetoric is irresponsible and dangerous, as evidenced by the disrespectful, hateful, racist, violent language and images emerging from “Tea Party Patriots” and other groups who seem to be enlisting in Beck’s army. Signs at Tea Party events identifying Obama with Hitler, Marx, Lenin, Saddam Hussein, and other notorious despots come right off of Beck’s blackboard. Many recent polls assert that, contrary to the opinions of the majority of Americans, large percentages of those in Tea Party-type groups don’t like the President, feel he favors blacks over whites, and believe he’s moving the country toward socialism. Some of the more extreme beliefs of these groups are that Obama is a Muslim, was not born in the U.S., wants to take away citizens’ guns, violates the Constitution, and, most bizarrely, is the Antichrist.41
These polls’ emotional-based statistics reflect the tenor and many of the talking points of Glenn Beck’s various programs, publications, and outlets. He isn’t the only right-wing media personality to influence such uninformed and misguided opinions, but his is certainly one of the most persistent, mean-spirited, and strident voices. Along with others who espouse such sentiments, Beck needs to be held accountable for the increasing racist rhetoric expressed by those on the far right. As with McCarthy and Coughlin, Beck’s incendiary campaign against the government will eventually implode, but before it does, a number of good people are likely to be adversely effected, as will the LDS Church itself.