Latter day taint

By ADAM REILLY  |  October 10, 2009

Among some Mormons, meanwhile, there’s fear that Beck’s ascent could reinvigorate a strain of Mormon thought that’s been fading away. Rory Swensen is co-chair of the board of directors of the Sunstone Education Foundation, which publishes the independent, liberal-leaning journal Sunstone; he also writes for the Mormon blog Times and Seasons. In a best-case scenario, Swensen says, Beck’s ascendance could foster discussion of the notion — repeatedly endorsed by the LDS Church hierarchy — that Mormonism doesn’t require allegiance to any political party, even though most Mormons tend to vote Republican.

That said, Swensen worries that Beck could help throw the LDS Church into a sort of ideological time warp. “Mormons tend to be one or two generations behind the broader culture, which is frustrating — a church that espouses prophetic inspiration should be the headlights on issues affecting the oppressed and the downtrodden, not the taillights,” he argues. “On civil rights, we were about 30 years too late. We’re fighting gay marriage right now, but I think you’re going to see the broader culture adopt it — and about 30 years later, we’ll find some way to make it work.”

That’s his hope, anyway. But, Swensen adds, “With Beck tapping into and exploiting mid-20th-century fears of anti-communism and anti-fascism, we might see a resurgence in that culture within Mormonism — and another generation of LDS leaders like Ezra Taft Benson.”

Mitt Romney’s politics are radically different than Swensen’s — but as our former governor girds for another run at the White House, he should probably be concerned, too.

During the 2008 campaign, Romney wooed Christian conservatives by arguing that the doctrinal particulars of his faith weren’t important. What mattered instead, Romney claimed, was that he had faith — that he wasn’t a godless secularist. “While differences in theology exist between the churches in America,” Romney said in his December 2007 speech on faith, “we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it’s usually a sound rule to focus on the latter.”

But as Beck’s example shows, shared moral conviction can mask radically different ideas about important subjects. If the press starts examining Beck’s Mormon influences in detail, they just might follow suit with Romney.

Back in 2007, after Romney cited Skousen during a radio interview, the National Review’s Mark Hemingway — himself a former Mormon — struck a deeply skeptical note in a piece titled “Romney’s Radical Roots.” Skousen’s anti-communism, Hemingway wrote, was “so irrational in its paranoia that it would have made Whittaker Chambers blush. . . . For better and for worse, Romney’s familiarity with Cleon Skousen does convincingly demonstrate that Mitt Romney is not far removed and indeed well-acquainted with a radical and firebrand conservatism — even if it is of the variety he might want to keep chained to a radiator in the attic.”

That’s precisely the sort of talk that Romney’s speech on faith was supposed to quash. Instead, thanks to the converted zealotry of Glenn Beck, the conversation might just be getting started.

To read the "Don't Quote Me" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/medialog. Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly@phx.com.

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