Saturday, October 24, 2009

How Mormonism Created Glenn Beck

By Joanna Brooks, Religion Dispatches. Posted October 22, 2009.

With Glenn Beck now a mainstay in the national debate, the public is getting exposure to a peculiar strain of religious political conservatism rooted in Mormon culture.

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Glenn Beck leans forward on his elbows. His voice hushes. His eyes grow red at the corners. He presses his lips together and clears his throat. He cannot speak. The tears fall, and just for a moment the brashest voice in American conservatism today falls silent.

This is what happens when Beck tells the story of his 1999 conversion to Mormonism.

"I was friendless, working in the smallest radio market I had ever worked in... a hopeless alcoholic, abusing drugs every day," Beck said in an interview taped last fall. "I was trying to find a job and nobody would hire me... couldn’t get an agent to represent me."

That’s when Beck’s wife-to-be Tania suggested that the family go on a "church tour," which finally led (after some prodding from Beck’s longtime on-air partner Pat Gray, a Mormon) to his local Mormon wardhouse. Six months later, the Beck family joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

"I was baptized on a Sunday, and on Monday" -- Beck’s throat tightens again; he wipes tears from his eyes with his index fingers -- "an agent called me out of the blue." Three days later, Beck was offered his own political talk radio show at WFLA-AM in Tampa, Florida, the job that put him on the road from "morning zoo" radio prankster to conservative media heavyweight.

Spiritual narratives of the I-once-was-lost-now-I-am-financially-sound variety are commonplace within Mormonism, which, like most of American Protestantism, has never been allergic to wealth. The institutional culture of the Mormon Church is strongly corporate, down to the dark suits, white shirts, and red or blue ties church leaders wear instead of vestments; Mormonism’s most powerful public figures like Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman Jr., and Bill Marriott Jr., come from the business world.

But whether or not one believes that God rewards baptism with fortune, it is clear that Glenn Beck’s conversion to and education in the Mormon faith after 1999 corresponds precisely with his rise as a media force.

Beck, who was raised Catholic in Washington state, has produced, with the help of Mormon Church-owned Deseret Book Company, the DVD An Unlikely Mormon: The Conversion Story of Glenn Beck (2008); Mormon fansites invite visitors to learn more about Beck’s beliefs by clicking through to the official Web site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But what these fansites don’t reveal is the extent to which Mormonism has given Beck key elements of his on-air personality and messaging.

Teary Tirades and Mormon Masculinity

Before 1999, Glenn Beck told jokes and pulled on-air stunts for a living. He developed the content of his current conservative messaging (an amalgation of anti-communism, United States-founder worship, and connect-the-dots conspiracy theorizing) after his entree into the deeply insular world of Mormon thought and culture. A significant figure in this world is the late Cleon Skousen (1913–2006), the archconservative and fiercely anti-communist Brigham Young University professor, founder of the Freeman Society, and author of 15 books, including The Naked Capitalist, The Making of America, and Prophecy and Modern Times. Beck, who first cited Skousen in his 2003 book The Real America: Messages from the Heart and the Heartland, later started pitching Skousen’s 1981 book The 5,000 Year Leap on air in December, 2008. He wrote a preface for a new edition of the book issued a few months later and in his March 2009 kick-off of the 9/12 movement declared Skousen’s book to be "divinely inspired." In a recent article for, Alexander Zaitchik suggested that Beck "rescued [Skousen] from the remainder pile of history." But Cleon Skousen was never remaindered among the most politically conservative Mormons, for whom he has been a household name since the 1960s.

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