By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Glenn Beck’s paranoid religiosity

Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck

It strikes me as overly cynical whenever I hear someone argue that Glenn Beck’s just an entertainer who doesn’t mean half the things he says. I find it hard to believe anyone could spew that much toxic rhetoric just for laughs (and money).

Now the Boston Phoenix’s Adam Reilly has advanced an alternative explanation, based on some pretty extensive research. According to Reilly, what animates Beck may be an out-there, retro strain of Mormonism he has embraced with a convert’s zeal.

Unlike mainstream Mormon public figures like Mitt Romney, Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid, Beck, Reilly argues, harks back to the virulent 1950s anti-communism of Ezra Taft Benson, a member of President Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinet who later became head of the LDS Church.

And when Beck says the Constitution is “hanging by a thread,” he’s not just indulging in a cliché — he’s invoking the very specific language of a particular type of religious paranoia.

Reilly’s piece is well worth your time.

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  1. lkcape

    I suspect that you give Beck, and by extension, Limbaugh more “power” than they really have.

    Howard Kurtz’s commentary in the Washington Post entitled “Targeting the Talkers” takes a more measured approach.

    Whatever Beck’s motive and rationale, he sure gets the left’s knickers in a twist.

  2. Peter Porcupine

    I am old enough to remember my grandmother ranting about the secret phone ‘St. John’ Kennedy had in the Oval Office to get his orders from the Pope.

    “It can be argued..” that Beck is this and that because of his religion.

    It can also be argued that I can ride a horse because I’m a ‘follower’ of the circuit rider John Wesley.

    Think of all the ‘can be argued’ points you could make about a Catholic like Ted Kennedy, or a Jew like Robert Reich, or a Quaker like Nixon, or…

    Bigotry is ugly. Imaginative bigotry is worse – imagining that a person’s faith defines thier polticial philosophy.

    Reilly should be ashamed of himself.

    • Dan Kennedy

      PP: Are you really trying to tell us that it’s not possible to hold dangerous, way-out-of-the-mainstream religious views? Or that such things should not be discussed in public?

  3. Aaron Read

    Has Beck been as consistently radical throughout his ascendancy to his current lofty heights?

    That’s something I couldn’t quite tease out of Reilly’s article. But it’d be telling if he got correspondingly more obnoxious and over-the-top as he got a bigger and bigger audience. Or if he’s pretty much always been this way.

  4. amusedbutinformedobserver

    A well done piece, to be sure, but here is another cynical theory:

    Beck, the DJ, wasn’t smart enough to develop his own theories and persona when the state of radio and his personal career path embraced talk radio. So he used this religious credo as a cheat sheet to develop the right wing character he plays on the radio.

    Remember who Beck replaced in his first big gig — Bob Lassiter at WFLA in Tampa, a remarkable entertainer who built a career on being despised by conservatives. Beck needed a radio persona approaching Lassiter’s stature to survive when succeeding a market legend. He adapted what he found to create the character he plays on the radio and now on televsion.

    Here’s a rule of thumb: When you find a DJ turned talk show host, you have someone who treats political issues like the latest hit record. Whatever drives listeners is good, whether you like/believe it or not. The talk show hosts methodically search for “hot button” issues that evoke an emotional response the same way they looked for the hit recording that the kids wanted to hear over and over during their DJ years.

    Liberal talk radio tends, by the nature of what it embraces as policy, to become bogged down in wonkism and an aversion to engage in many of the abusive on-air techniques that provide the entertainment value for right-wing talk. Hence, liberal talk radio does not even remotely approach the entertainment appeal of conservative talk radio. Playing to emotion trumps playing to intellect every day of the week.

  5. PP, you *are* aware that some of Beck’s fellow Mormons are making similar points–right?

    Also, I’d urge you to take another look at the quote in my piece from Rory Swensen, a Mormon who’s very concerned about the potential impact on his community of Beck’s chosen LDS emphases.

  6. Peter Porcupine

    DK – I freely admit that I only see Beck occasionally, as I am not a fan of hyperbole (Hugh Hewitt or Charles Krauthammer are more my line of commentator). However, I cannot ever remember him mentioning being a Mormon, and didn’t know he was until I read this smear piece. Has BECK ever said his faith informs his views? Or are you relying on inference? Would you say all Catholics are anti-abortion? Or all residents of Belmont belong to the John Birch Society?

    Mr. Reilly – Finding a fellow adherent who also thinks Beck is giving Mormons a bad rap is a scant fig leaf. George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton belong to the same church. How would you twist that into saying a ‘fellow adherent’ says each is wacky?

    • Dan Kennedy

      PP: You are turning logic on its head. The whole point of Adam’s fine piece is that Beck is indulging in very specific, way-out-of-the-mainstream Mormon views while rarely identifying them (or himself) as Mormon. I would hope you’d acknowledge that it’s possible to belong to a religious denomination while simultaneously picking up on extremist aspects of that denomination that are an embarrassment to most members.

  7. Peter Porcupine

    DK – I look forward to Reilly’s investigation into how much Speaker DeLeo is influenced by Opus Dei, and if it’s true that Senate Ways & Means regards Vatican II as heresy because they eat fish on Friday.

    I happen to be anti-Communist myself – is it because I’m a closet Mormon? Or just a child of the Fifties?

    Because Mormons are a religious minority, it’s easy to make them mysterious scapegoats.

  8. PP, your claims that I’m making an unsubstantiated connection between Beck’s faith and politics suggest you haven’t read the piece–or need to read it again, much more closely.

    Glenn Beck is a huge fan of Cleon Skousen, an influential midcentury LDS figure. He’s praised Skousen on air and written the foreword for one of his books.

    Prior to the ’08 presidential election, Glenn Beck played audio of Ezra Taft Benson–who later became president of the LDS Church–warning of a stealth communist threat that would survive the Cold War and lead to the destruction of American freedom. This, Beck said, was a pretty good description of where we are right now.

    In addition, Glenn Beck has explicitly referenced, on air, a well-known Mormon belief–attributed to Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith–that the US Constitution will one day “hang by a thread” and be rescued by Mormons.

    Glenn Beck has also, on air, invoked Mormon scriptural understandings about why God cast down Satan (i.e., because the latter sought to deny humans free moral agency) to condemn government as “the Devil.”

    If Bob DeLeo makes similar overt nods to Catholicism–if he quotes from a papal encyclical or two, say, or lauds the keen insights of Josemaria Escriva–I’ll write about it with relish.

  9. Neil

    Peter Porcupine’s poo poo punctured.

    Beck predicts the apocalypse – “We’re all going to die soon” – is that also part of Mormon religious heritage?

  10. Steve Stein

    I’m troubled by this. The focus should be on Beck’s nuttiness, not his religion. The trouble is that he’s a devotee of some crackpots. The fact that they’re Mormon crackpots is secondary.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Steve: I’m surprised. It strikes me that you’re having a knee-jerk response to the “let’s not trash the Mormons” theme and are overlooking the fact that Adam is not writing about Mormonism per se, but about extreme religious beliefs associated with certain Mormons.

      Do you think it’s fair game if a candidate for vice president publicly asks God to build a natural-gas pipeline, and applauds with a big smile on her face when the minister of her former church tells the congregation that God has special plans for her state after the Apocalypse?

      Would you think it’s fair game if we had a president who fervently believes that Jesus will return to earth after Armageddon, and who announces that he’s going to break off negotiations with Iran, North Korea, Russia, and any other nuclear country you can name?

      Would you have some questions if one of the Senate candidates to succeed Ted Kennedy were a follower of Wahhabism?

      The only difference is that Beck is a talk-show host, not a candidate for public office. So maybe he ought to be cut a bit of slack on that basis. But religion matters. We’re wrong to pander to it and we’re wrong to ignore it. If extreme religious beliefs animate some of Beck’s opinions, well, let’s hear about it.

  11. Steve Stein

    I have trouble with someone who wants to hasten a nuclear apocalypse, whether or not they think Jesus is in favor of it. Many people sincerely believe the Book of Revelations, but they see the evil in trying to bring it about personally.

    I believe the Temple in Jerusalem will some day be rebuilt, but I have real trouble with some of my co-religionists who want to get started on it next week.

    I wouldn’t vote for someone who wanted to compel everyone to convert to Islam, by force if necessary. But my problem would be with the force and compulsion, not with Islam.

    You’re right that I have an instinctual unease about demonizing someone for their religion. But I have no problem demonizing someone for inciting crazy actions, however they are inspired.

  12. lafcadio mullarkey

    Seems to me Beck has found validation for already-conceived notions in the writings of certain nutty and deceased Mormons.

    Everybody does this–you seek confirmation of your beliefs in whatever cultural trimmings you happen to have at hand.

    I’d go so far as to say that this is the exact function of religions–to function as repositories of crackpot ideas that survive longer than they should because religious belief is exempt from logical scrutiny. (You believe in reincarnation? Or the transubstantiation of the eucharist? Or that the Angel Moroni guided you to a set of plates that… What are you f*ing nuts! Er I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Later generations can then pick and choose from these ideas to justify whatever their beliefs happen to be.

    I agree with Steve in the sense that it’s the belief itself that’s dangerous. I think the connection to a particular religion is rationalization–it comes after the fact, and springs from a need for some claim to authority.

    Religion is like M&Ms–it provides the creamy inner layer of your particular belief with a protective outer coating of dogma. It’s protective because people are afraid to question it. The result is palatable to the masses!

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