Beck, Romney & The Future of the Religious Right
There has long been a Mormon dimension to the Religious Right which has been little discussed and not well understood. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, the rise of Glenn Beck has begun to change that. Indeed, in the run up to the publication of a book on Beck, his Mormon-informed far Religious Rightism is starting to get noticed.
There are two new and useful articles out about this this week that wonder aloud about the role not just of Beck, but of Mormonism, (at least certain strains of Mormonism) in the future of American conservatism. (Exceprts on the flip).
Mitt Romney had a hard time navigating popular distrust of his Mormon faith as well as the overt anti-Mormonism of conservative Christians he needed to win over in the GOP primaries. He went so far as to give a speech early in the primary season intended to take the issue of his Mormonism head on. It probably helped him but, by all indications, not nearly enough.
But with Glenn Beck about to become the best known Mormon in American politics, Romney may have some unanticipated, fresh hurdles to in this regard.
Here are some excerpts:
Latter day taint: How Glenn Beck is driven by Mormonism -- and why his fellow faithful (including Mitt Romney) should be worried, by Adam Reilly appears in The Boston Phoenix.
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?
To be fair, the media haven't totally ignored the significance of Beck's Mormonism. In September, Salon published several stories by Alexander Zaitchik, author of a forthcoming Beck biography, on Beck's improbable march to conservative superstardom. One -- "Meet the Man Who Changed Glenn Beck's Life" -- focused on Beck's deep ties to Cleon Skousen, an eccentric, prolific Mormon thinker who died in 2006. These days, Skousen is best known as the author of The Five Thousand Year Leap, a book that dubs the US Constitution a "miracle" and casts the Founders as deeply Christian men. Beck has lavishly praised The Five Thousand Year Leap on air, and even wrote the foreword for a new edition of the book; as a result, this formerly obscure text is now a bestseller in its own right.
But Skousen wasn't just a cheerleader for Christianity. He was also a zealous purveyor of conspiracy theories, obsessed with communism in his earlier years and later warning of a vast mega-conspiracy in which communists and capitalists joined forces to seek total world domination.
How Mormonism Built Glenn Beck by Joanna Brooks, at Religion Dispatches.
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.
It's true that his Mormonism sometimes gets Beck into trouble with evangelical Christians, who have long antagonized Mormons by denying the authenticity of their belief in Jesus Christ and deriding the Mormon Church as a cult. Last December, James Dobson's Focus on the Family Web site pulled a Beck column, citing concerns about his Mormon ties. Still, Beck's spectacular rise suggests that evangelical conservatives (especially those under 40 who may not remember the anti-Mormon cult crusades of the 1980s) are increasingly willing to set aside their reservations about Mormons when it suits their pragmatic and political interests.
Glenn Beck marks an unprecedented national mainstreaming of a peculiar strand of religious political conservatism rooted in, and once isolated to, the Mormon culture regions of the American West. That Mormons are capable of leveraging disproportionate political influence with decisive results was one of the great lessons of California's 2008 election season, wherein readily-mobilized Mormons, who make up 2% of California's population, contributed more than 50% of the individual donations to the successful anti-marriage equality Proposition 8 campaign, and a sizeable majority of its on-the-ground efforts.
How much traction Glenn Beck can muster remains to be seen. But if the American religious right has sometimes been imagined as a monolithic product of the evangelical Deep South and Bible Belt, the rise of Glenn Beck suggests that those who would understand American conservatism might also look West, toward Salt Lake City.