Glenn Beck: Latter-day Taint 

Glenn Beck's Mormonism may even frighten fellow believers.

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Apparently, Beck believes that this terrifying crisis is now at hand (or just thinks LDS apocalypticism makes great radio). On Election Day in 2008, Beck interviewed Utah’s Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, also a Mormon, on his radio program:

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Beck: Senator, do you believe—I mean, when I heard Barack Obama talk about the Constitution, and I thought, we are at the point or we are very near the point where our Constitution is hanging by a thread.

Hatch: You got that right …

Beck: We are so close to losing our Constitution. We are so close to losing what we have, and people aren’t thinking. The next generation, our children will look to us and say, “You sold my freedom for what?”

Hatch: Well, let me tell you something. I believe the Constitution is hanging by a thread.

More recently, Beck used his radio show to propound the Mormon conception of Satan—though many in his audience may not have noticed. On May 5, waxing indignant about governmentsponsored social services—as opposed to freely chosen acts of charity—Beck asked, “Did Jesus say when a man asks for your shirt, you give the government your coat also, and have the government give that coat to the man? No! The government is a middleman. … The government is the devil.”

That’s a bizarre statement—but it jibes with a passage in the "Pearl of Great Price," one of the LDS Church’s canonical scriptures, in which God explains that Satan was cast down after he “rebelled against Me, and sought to destroy the agency of man …” God’s conflict with the devil, in other words, originated with the latter’s attempts to deprive humans of free moral agency. Hence, Beck’s overheated assessment of a hypothetical, government-sponsored clothing giveaway. As Jones, the aforementioned Mormon historian and blogger, immediately noted, Beck’s strange claim was actually a “variation on a standard Sunday School theme.”

Romney’s Apocalypse?
So is Beck’s retro Mormonism responsible for his particular brand of politics?

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Not everyone thinks so. “Anybody that’s going back to the John Birch era is going to discover Ezra Taft Benson,” says Jan Shipps, an emeritus professor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and eminent non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism. “To say he’s going in that direction because he became a Mormon is pushing it a little far.”

The prolific historian D. Michael Quinn, who grew up in the LDS Church, makes a similar point. Quinn—who was trained at Yale and has taught there and at BYU—was excommunicated by the LDS Church in 1993 after pursuing several incendiary topics in Mormon history. He suspects that Beck’s conservatism led him to embrace the LDS Church, rather than the other way around. “The combination of Skousen and Benson would have been very attractiveto him,” says Quinn. “I think he’s now sharing with America what originally attracted him to Mormonism.”

Even if Shipps and Quinn are right, though, that doesn’t mean that Beck’s faith is insignificant. After all, thanks to Beck’s chosen LDS influences, he’s currently interpreting the first years of the 21st century via a melodramatic, anxiety-soaked worldview that was established 50 years ago—and which, in turn, was itself grounded in Mormon scripture and the LDS Church’s 19th-century travails. Given this intellectual lineage, is it any wonder that Beck and his fans tend to regard fundamentally political problems— health-care reform, say—as apocalyptic battles between good and evil?

Among some Mormons, meanwhile, there’s fear that Beck’s ascent could reinvigorate a strain of Mormon thought that’s been fading away. Rory Swensen is co-chair of the board of directors of the Sunstone Education Foundation, which publishes the independent, liberal-leaning journal Sunstone; he also writes for the Mormon blog Times and Seasons. In a best-case scenario, Swensen says, Beck’s ascendance could foster discussion of the notion—repeatedly endorsed by the LDS Church hierarchy—that Mormonism doesn’t require allegiance to any political party, even though most Mormons tend to vote Republican.

That said, Swensen worries that Beck could help throw the LDS Church into a sort of ideological time warp. “Mormons tend to be one or two generations behind the broader culture, which is frustrating—a church that espouses prophetic inspiration should be the headlights on issues affecting the oppressed and the downtrodden, not the taillights,” he argues. “On civil rights, we were about 30 years too late. We’re fighting gay marriage right now, but I think you’re going to see the broader culture adopt it—and about 30 years later, we’ll find some way to make it work.”

That’s his hope, anyway. But, Swensen adds, “With Beck tapping into and exploiting mid-20th-century fears of anti-communism and anti-fascism, we might see a resurgence in that culture within Mormonism—and another generation of LDS leaders like Ezra Taft Benson.”

Mitt Romney’s politics are radically different from Swensen’s— but as the Massachusetts former governor girds for another run at the White House, he should probably be concerned, too.

During the 2008 campaign, Romney wooed Christian conservatives by arguing that the doctrinal particulars of his faith weren’t important. What mattered instead, Romney claimed, was that he had faith—that he wasn’t a godless secularist. “While differences in theology exist between the churches in America,” Romney said in his December 2007 speech on faith, “we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it’s usually a sound rule to focus on the latter.”

But, as Beck’s example shows, shared moral conviction can mask radically different ideas about important subjects. If the media start examining Beck’s Mormon influences in detail, they just might follow suit with Romney.

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Back in 2007, after Romney cited Skousen during a radio interview, the National Review’s Mark Hemingway—himself a former Mormon—struck a deeply skeptical note in a piece titled “Romney’s Radical Roots.” Skousen’s anticommunism, Hemingway wrote, was “so irrational in its paranoia that it would have made Whittaker Chambers blush. … For better and for worse, Romney’s familiarity with Cleon Skousen does convincingly demonstrate that Mitt Romney is not far removed and indeed well-acquainted with a radical and firebrand conservatism—even if it is of the variety he might want to keep chained to a radiator in the attic.”

That’s precisely the sort of talk that Romney’s speech on faith was supposed to quash. Instead, thanks to the converted zealotry of Glenn Beck, the conversation might just be getting started.

This story originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.

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