After my last post on Glenn Beck I told myself I wouldn’t bother mentioning him again on this blog. There isn’t much I could add to the criticisms—from the left, right, and center—that have been made against him in the last few weeks. His recent comments have shown that he’s a naked opportunist who will say anything to get attention: If he’s on his television show on Fox he’ll pander to the audience by saying that President Obama is a racist who is ushering in an age of socialism, if not the apocalypse; then, when he is in front of Katie Couric and CBS News, he says that John McCain would have been worse for the country than Obama (which begs the question, “What exactly is worse than the socialist/communist/fascist apocalypse?”).
Yet despite his antics and inconsistencies, he retains a cult of personality that rivals Obama. (Disagree? Try saying something negative about Beck and see what kind of feedback you get.) So its not worth trying to persuade people that he is bad for conservatism, bad for America, and bad for anyone who believes political discourse should be civil and sane. Those who are open to such a discussion don’t need to be convinced and and those that aren’t simply won’t brook any criticisms of their populist hero.
While I would rather not talk about him at all, there is still one reason why it is worth bringing him back into the discussion: Beck has an agenda that is similar to—and competes with—the mission of First Things.
The mission of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes this magazine and website, is to be an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society. Beck also is attempting to “advance a religiously informed public philosophy” though, as Rod Dreher points out, it often goes unacknowledged by his audience:
Beck is a white Jeremiah Wright, a crazy-pants conspiracy theorist whose worldview is rooted in the paranoid teachings of a far-right Mormon political guru named W. Cleon Skousen. Before signing up as a recruit in Beck’s army, conservative Becketeers had better think long and hard about where their affable leader is taking them.
[. . . ]
Beck’s paranoia doesn’t come from nowhere. His man Skousen was a fanatical Mormon reactionary so far to the right that the Latter-day Saints church finally felt compelled to distance itself from his teaching.
[. . . ]
In a 1976 lecture, the audio of which is available on the pro-Skousen site AwakeAndArise.org, Skousen rails like an Old Testament prophet, quoting Mormon scriptures and detailing how Satan is working with “secret combinations” – a Mormon theological term – within political parties, churches, labor unions and the wealthy elite, especially the Rockefeller family, to bring about the “One World Order.”
Skousen, like his follower Beck, is obsessed with the idea that these secret combinations are conniving to overthrow the U.S. Constitution. Though it is not part of official LDS doctrine, some Mormons believe in an apocalyptic prophecy attributed to church founder Joseph Smith, who supposedly taught that the Constitution would one dark day be hanging by a thread and that Mormon elders would rescue it.
The pudgy, sweet-natured Beck offers a more palatable form of this paranoia – but all his fruit and sugar can’t hide the Skousenite firewater. How ironic that conservative Christians who unjustly dunned conventional Mitt Romney because of his LDS faith are uncritically backing the squirrelly Beck, who looks like he’s casting himself as hero of a prophetic Mormon melodrama.
As someone who champions the idea that public philosophy should be religiously informed, I don’t begrudge Beck his attempt to insinuate his religious views into the public square. True, I wish he were more open about it and that his acolytes were more aware of what they were signing on for. But in our pluralistic society, even religiously-rooted conspiracy-based philosophies should be able to compete for the attention of the public.
The danger, of course, is that such errant philosophies will be accepted as legitimate by people who put their trust more in personalities and political parties more than in logic, reason, or their own religious traditions. In this case, though, I’m not sure how much I need to worry. While Beck may be an evangelist for the views of Skousen, there is no evidence that he really believes it himself—indeed there is scant evidence that Beck believes in anything other than ratings and attention.
And if the prophet doesn’t believe it himself, how long will he be able to convince his followers to accept his testament?