Fifteen years ago, Glenn Beck was a small-market DJ with a drinking problem, no friends, and bleak professional prospects. Today, he’s a Fox News superstar averaging 2.4 million viewers (in a mediocre time slot, no less), an inexorably successful author (his new book, Arguing with Idiots, is the fourth Beck opus to top the New York Times bestseller list), and the leader of a popular movement that condemns government in general and President Barack Obama in particular. What’s more, he’s gotten under the skin of politicians from both parties. Just last week, the White House took vigorous issue with Beck’s criticisms of senior Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett, and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina ripped Beck’s cynicism and teary tendencies in an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
Notwithstanding Beck’s reckless asininity — e.g., his infamous claim that Obama has a “deep-seated hatred for white people” — that’s an impressive career arc. And the media, naturally, have been striving to grasp the Beck phenomenon: witness Time magazine’s credulous September 28 cover story, a sharp column by the New York Times’ Frank Rich, an earlier Times profile, and sundry other treatments ranging from the academic (Columbia Journalism Review) to the middlebrow (CBS’s Katie Couric).
Beck’s would-be interpreters occasionally note that he’s a Mormon: he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) as an adult, in 1999, with his wife and children. But in contrast with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism was discussed in great detail during his failed 2008 presidential bid, the ramifications of Beck’s faith has gone largely unexplored. That’s unfortunate — because a case can be made that Beck is to Mormonism what Father Charles Coughlin was to Catholicism in the 1930s, when the “radio priest” peddled nasty, faith-based opposition to another ambitious Democratic president.
Given the ease with which this discussion could degenerate into Mormon-bashing, this reticence may be understandable. To fully get Beck, though, it’s necessary to understand just how many of his beliefs have specifically Mormon roots, or are conveyed in uniquely Mormon ways — from his embrace of former Mormon leader Ezra Taft Benson’s insatiable anti-communism to his Mormon-bred suspicion that the government is the agent of Satan. For some of Beck’s co-religionists, these links are obvious. Back in March, for example, writing at the Mormon-history blog the Juvenile Instructor, Christopher Jones — a doctoral student in history at William & Mary — noted that Beck seemed to be plumbing the disturbing depths of Mormon millenarianism, and marveled at the press’s seeming disinterest.
Once the link between Beck’s faith and politics gets made, intriguing questions emerge. Without his unsettling brand of Mormonism, would Glenn Beck still be Glenn Beck? Should members of the LDS Church be cheering or lamenting Beck’s protracted moment in the spotlight? Could Beck’s forays into stealth Mormon sermonizing make his conservative evangelical fans rethink their loyalty? And if Beck’s religiosity finally becomes a story, what might that mean for the lingering presidential hopes of 2012 Republican contender Mitt Romney?