Exploring Glenn Beck’s beliefs

One thing everyone can agree on is that Glenn Beck–the conservative star of TV, radio publishing and occasional live events–is hot. He’s also controversial, as a Beck-friendly columnist recently acknowledged in USA Today:

perhaps his most impressive feat is his ability to unite a broad coalition of liberals, media scolds and conservatives under the single banner of Beck-hatred.

What’s less clear is what Beck believes and how those beliefs shape his political views. Beck recorded a DVD entitled “An Unlikely Mormon” (with Deseret Book Company, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) but it doesn’t connect the dots between faith and politics.

I have tried to connect these dots myself, but my requests for an interview with Beck for Religion News Service have been declined.

Into the gap steps scholar and author Joanna Brooks, who tries to explore Beck’s beliefs in an article entitled “How Mormonism Built Glenn Beck.” The article appears on the Religion Dispatches site, which describes itself as a “progressive” daily online magazine that promotes “rigorous, open and respectful debate” about “the intersections of religion, values, and public life.”

Their piece on Beck does just that, exploring his beliefs without rancor or hysteria. Two portions are particularly interesting, including a section exploring Beck’s debts to one key Mormon thinker:

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 Salon.com, Alexander Zaitchik suggested that Beck “rescued [Skousen] from the remainder pile of history.”

Equally interesting is the section on Mormon masculinity:

Beck’s oft-ridiculed penchant for punctuating his tirades with tears is the hallmark of a distinctly Mormon mode of masculinity. As sociologist David Knowlton has written, “Mormonism praises the man who is able to shed tears as a manifestation of spirituality.” Crying and choking up are understood by Mormons as manifestations of the Holy Spirit. For men at every rank of Mormon culture and visibility, appropriately-timed displays of tender emotion are displays of power.

There’s much more in this 1,500-word piece. And until Beck himself reveals more about how his beliefs shape his politics (or someone points out a better piece on this topic), this article will serve as my guide to the Gospel according to Glenn.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I find this “tears’ business interesting. For, if you study monastic history, the desert fathers, and Orthodox spirituality–the gift of tears from the Holy Spirit is one of the greatest gifts given, but usually during sincere prayer of compunction of the heart.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Interesting article on this sick, twisted freak.

  • John McKell

    I had no idea that “Brother Beck” was LDS. However, the fact that he is a “Skousenite” comes as no surprise. For those interested in knowing how deep the rabbit hole goes, check out those books listed. This brand of hyper-conservatism has been around a long time. I wonder if Beck sees islamists behind every bush like Skousen saw communtists behind every bush.

  • Rathje

    As a lifelong Mormon, I can tell you I find the weepiness personally annoying. It is something that is true of SOME Mormon males. It is not true of ALL Mormon males. I haven’t gotten weepy during testimonial time once in my entire lifetime of being a Mormon – not during Mormon youth overnight retreats, not during my two-year mission, not when giving personal testimony from the pulpit, not even during a cheesy and misguided group spiritual sing-along I sat in on while attending Brigham Young University.

    My typical uncharitable reaction when someone gets up to the pulpit in an LDS meeting and immediately starts sobbing is “get a room.”

    Then my wife kicks me, and I remember to be nice and supportive of my fellow church-goers.

    But I’m not alone in my preferences here.

  • Stephen Buck

    Looking through the links of “Get Religion” and the kinds of articles written on its pages I am a bit unsure exactly what it stands for, who it represents and what the site hopes to accomplish. I think you are afraid to state what you are all about.
    But I have noticed you manage to publish many articles that have an anti-mormon stance. Whether Beck is using ideas from the past or not he does seem to be hitting at least a few nails on the head. I would rather think you might want to discuss the idea that America has many domestics, and I might add many spiritual problems, even if Beck has already commented on them.
    Just what role do you expect religion to play regarding the mess we are in? What problems do you see and when are you going to comment on them? Your pages are silently ignoring the problems that may sink us. Have you no faith that faith can offer solutions. Don’t think we should hear about them?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Did you notice the author of the article refers to “wardhouses”?

    I have spent a lifetime around Mormons and have never heard of anything other than “wards.”

    I thought the piece was more than a bit overwrought but I was glad someone suggested that Beck’s call for a day of fasting might have more to do with the monthly Mormon fast than the fast for Yom Kippur.

  • robroy

    Katie Couric recently did a video with Glen Beck. VERY INTERESTING: http://tinyurl.com/yzcdwr9

    Those “haters” of Glen Beck would see a person that loves his country and is very worried about big government (Bush or Obama).

  • http://www.allaboutmormons.com JDD

    I read the article on Religion Dispatches and found it to be quite inaccurate. Among other things, it implied that Cleon Skousen is a “household name” in Mormon circles. I’m a very active Mormon with an active interest in Mormon culture, and I’ve never even heard Cleon’s name except from news articles trying to tie him to Beck. He’s not a major name in Mormon circles. In fact, I read in one news article that the Mormon Church intentionally distanced itself from Cleon because his ideas were too controversial.

  • CarlH

    My, oh my! Where to begin? Or should I even try?

    I respect the fact that you have attempted to get an interview with Beck; and his refusal certainly opens himself to your conclusion above. But I wonder whether that conclusion lives up to your own aspirations described in your introductory post that is still linked to your listing as a contributor to GetReligion.

    That being said, you deserve credit for pointing out the self-proclaimed perspective of Religion Dispatches, which at least alerts a reader to the fact that this is coming from the side of the political divide for which Beck has become a particularly useful bogeyman. But nothing about the author’s own self-description (included at the top of the article)?

    Joanna Brooks grew up an orthodox Mormon girl in the orange groves of Cold War Orange County, California. Now, she’s an award-winning writer and scholar of American religion and culture.

    The same description appears in the first person at her own website, but with “seeking unorthodox manifestations of faith, justice, and mercy in America” in the place of “and scholar of American religion and culture.”

    While it is true that Ms. Brooks’s article is presented without outright “rancor or hysteria,” the suggestion that it is unqualified “Mormonism” that shaped Glenn Beck’s politics suggest there may be an ax grinding somewhere in the background, even without considering or deconstructing the unnuanced invocation of Mormon “corporate” culture, an interesting (if, after decades of Mormon feminist complaints, somewhat trite) take-down of Mormon men generally and particularly their alleged regimentation, and the broad-brush denigration of “Mormon storytelling,” let alone the characterization of Cleon Skousen’s “place” within Mormon consciousness. Someone has at least bought into more than a few fond stereotypes.

    My own experience suggests that Beck has become a controversial and anxiety-producing figure within as broad a swath of LDS culture as he has become a political lightening rod (or negatively “unifying” force, if you prefer Jonah Goldberg’s characterization) in the broader American population, including among LDS conservatives, many of whom blanch at Beck’s increasingly buffoonish antics as much as, or perhaps even more than, other conservatives, precisely because Beck has sometimes been known to wear his religion so prominently on his sleeve.

    I am not a Beck listener, let alone a fan. Indeed, I have asked Mormon friends who have been regular listeners and fans if my own impression that Beck seems to have “jumped the shark” of late is off-base, with varying responses ranging from some fierce defense to some disappointed head-shaking.

  • Jerry

    One thing everyone can agree on is that Glenn Beck—the conservative star of TV, radio publishing and occasional live events—is hot.

    I don’t agree so obviously it’s not everyone :-) I believe I’m not alone in ignoring a certain class of entertainers such as him.

  • kadee

    David Knowlton is a fired BYU professor and hardly one to give a fair evaluation of Mormon spirituality. Maybe he was fired because he didn’t cry enough. Ya think?? I am 70 years old and a lifetime Mormon and to suggest that any tears shed by a Mormon male are phony displays of power is only unsubstantiated hyperbole. I hardly think I am the only one that doesn’t relate tears with power.

    How often do we call on others in the realm of politics and media to reveal more about how their beliefs shape their politics? I would be interested in hearing from Al Franken on the subject myself. Or what about Michael Moore? He has been throwing around some Biblical references lately (see his interview w/ Hannity this week.)

    Whether you like him or not, Glenn Beck has been very personally open. He has revealed way more about himself, his spiritual self and how his beliefs shape his politics than any other media personality. But I will read the 1500 word article hoping to be more enlightened. I will not however, let it be a guide for anything. I will form my own opinion.

    PS… Ward House use as a term is not uncommon. (I assume to differentiate it from Stake House.)

  • David Knowlton

    Kadee, No one said “phony”. Phony is different from culturally learned and motivated. The tears of Mormon men in authority are emblems of sincerity, and hence emblems of authority. In my experience, they are genuine.

    Rathje, thank you for acknowledging your feelings about the crying. Mormonism is wonderfully diverse. No you are not alone, but the public crying seems to get more common as one climbs the ladder of authority.

    By the way, though I appreciate Brook’s article and its analysis, I am not a sociologist. I am an anthropologist. And the BYU experience made me cry plenty before I was asked to leave. But that is history; maybe Kadee should read about some of its complexity.

  • Martha

    I had no idea the Mormons cherished the gift of tears. You learn something new every day.

    Of course, this is an old idea in Orthodox and Catholic monasticism, so I wouldn’t call it a “a distinctly Mormon mode of masculinity”, but then again, we can’t expect reporters to be experts in Church history, now can we? ;-)

  • kadee

    David…. I know a lot about the “complexities” from people who knew you as faculty member at BYU. You had many supporters. I even talked with you about it once at a Sunstone Symposium. I liked you and sympathized a great deal with your situation. I do take strong opposition to the supposition that tears are equated with power in Mormon worship. I guess the “appropriately-timed displays” part of the paragraph led me to the “phony.” Genuine emotion is not usually appropriately timed. However, in re-reading just now, it appears that the rest of the paragraph is from the author of the article not you. If so, I sincerely apologize. In fact I wish you very well in your life post BYU.

  • kadee

    PA Rody…. your comment should be deleted and doesn’t deserve a reply.

  • Ann

    Glenn Beck uses Vicks Vapor Rub to cry on cue. He states in the beginning of the video that his eyes must be getting use to the Vicks Vapor Rub.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m692Tqbnbxo

    Beck has said in an interview several months ago that anyone that believed everything he said was a fool.

  • http://www.republicanredefined.com t christopher
  • Jettboy

    I don’t buy the “tears” thing having to do with masculinity. The amount of tears I see coming from women are 10 to 1, so how do you explain that? Feminism power must be rampant then. By the way, I am not a tear person and get very uncomfortable when they start flowing from someone else. It isn’t that hard to tell when the tears are for show and when they are real. Even better, you can always tell who will tear up and who won’t once you get to know a congregation.

    I will agree that for the most part the article was fair. However, that tears thing bothered me more than anything else because the interpretation was, like most tear drenched testimonies, over dramatic. For the record, I buy Glenn Beck’s sincerity, but not his tears.

  • Stephen A.

    The connection with Skousen is enlightening. Beck actually comes across as a modern-day devotee of the John Birch Society – complete with bizarre conspiracies charted out on chalk boards and making tenuous guilt-by-association statements that are reminiscent of the McCarthy era – some of which are grossly, slandersly wrong, others merely interesting, while a few (esp. the quotes he uncovers) seem indeed reflective of the subject’s belief system.

    (The fact that Obama has near-Marxists around him is not shocking. Nor was the influence of neo-cons in the Bush White House. We get whom we vote for as a nation. Choose better next time and stop whining.)

    More like the Moonies than the Mormons (who at this point are far more mainstream than the Moonies ever hoped to be) Beck’s Anti-Communism seems to be the REAL religion of Beck. Crying supposed holy spirit-like tears on behalf of politics instead of his Faith is the clue that this self-described “rodeo clown” has a Faith centered more around his heavily-armed, violence-threatening nascent Libertarian Militia than Mormonism.

    His efforts seem focused on spreading the 9/12 “movement” more than his own religion, which must give some LDS pause.

    The crying seems more like a family and personal inheritance than a religious one, based on just the comments here from Mormons who have no idea that was such a defining feature. I consider it just one more tool in his cynicism-inducing act than anything else.

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  • Susan

    Glens childhood must have been very difficult with his parent’s divorce, deaths of his mother and step brother, and his own drug and alchohol abuse. His Catholic and Mormon diametrically conflicting ideological religious background must be difficult to understand. I don’t know if the serious illness in his family is what molds his compassion for the indigent and those who despearately need health care. We all know in his religiosity stands up for those who cannot speak for themselves, i.e. immigrants, people who are seriously ill, seniors who need to discuss end of life issues before they die and all those who are in need. Those days as a D.J. were really tough for him, and he doesn’t want to see others struggling like he did. To be Christlike, let’s all try to show some understanding for Glenn. May God bless him and keep him, make his face shine upon him and give him peace. His judgment day will come soon enough.