Latter day taint

By ADAM REILLY  |  October 10, 2009

BECK Senator, do you believe — I mean, when I heard Barack Obama talk about the Constitution and I thought, we are at the point or we are very near the point where our Constitution is hanging by a thread.
HATCH You got that right . . .
BECK We are so close to losing our Constitution. We are so close to losing what we have, and people aren’t thinking. The next generation, our children will look to us and say, “You sold my freedom for what?”
HATCH Well, let me tell you something. I believe the Constitution is hanging by a thread.

More recently, Beck used his radio show to propound the Mormon conception of Satan — though many in his audience may not have noticed. On May 5, waxing indignant about government-sponsored social services — as opposed to freely chosen acts of charity — Beck asked, “Did Jesus say when a man asks for your shirt, you give the government your coat also, and have the government give that coat to the man? No! The government is a middleman. . . . The government is the Devil.”

That’s a bizarre statement — but it jibes with a passage in the Pearl of Great Price, one of the LDS Church’s canonical scriptures, in which God explains that Satan was cast down after he “rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man . . .”

God’s conflict with the Devil, in other words, originated with the latter’s attempts to deprive humans of free moral agency. Hence, Beck’s overheated assessment of a hypothetical, government-sponsored clothing giveaway. As Jones, the aforementioned Mormon historian and blogger, immediately noted, Beck’s strange claim was actually a “variation on a standard Sunday School theme.”


Romney’s apocalypse?
So is Beck’s retro Mormonism responsible for his particular brand of politics?

Not everyone thinks so. “Anybody that’s going back to the John Birch era is going to discover Ezra Taft Benson,” Jan Shipps, an emeritus professor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and eminent non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism, tells the Phoenix. “To say he’s going in that direction because he became a Mormon is pushing it a little far.”

The prolific historian D. Michael Quinn, who grew up in the LDS Church, makes a similar point. Quinn — who was trained at Yale, and has taught there and at BYU — was excommunicated by the LDS Church in 1993 after pursuing several incendiary topics in Mormon history. He suspects that Beck’s conservatism led him to embrace the LDS Church, rather than the other way around. “The combination of Skousen and Benson would have been very attractive to him,” says Quinn. “I think he’s now sharing with America what originally attracted him to Mormonism.”

Even if Shipps and Quinn are right, though, that doesn’t mean that Beck’s faith is insignificant. After all, thanks to Beck’s chosen LDS influences, he’s currently interpreting the first years of the 21st century via a melodramatic, anxiety-soaked worldview that was established 50 years ago — and which, in turn, was itself grounded in Mormon scripture and the LDS Church’s 19th-century travails. Given this intellectual lineage, is it any wonder that Beck and his fans tend to regard fundamentally political problems — health-care reform, say — as apocalyptic battles between good and evil?

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Related: Interview: James Carroll, Sin tax, Holy war, More more >
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