Thursday, March 11, 2010

Brother Beck

Lots of people on the right are mildly embarrassed and irritated by Glenn Beck, but they tolerate him precisely because he angers people on the left. It's that kind of visceral politics that we miss out on when we focus solely on a pundit's accuracy, argumentative abilities, and adherence to amorphous "journalistic ethics." Some people on the right believe Beck's paranoid politics. But I suspect many on the right don't. They simply enjoy the fact that he's out there, reclaiming public space for conservatism in whatever form is possible, antagonizing overly sensitive liberals in the process. Conservatives who personally avoid watching Beck see him as a necessary shock warrior (as they do Ann Coulter), a soldier who has to go do disgusting things behind enemy lines that the patriot tacitly supports without wanting to know the details.

But while I am not surprised that conservatives are enabling the Skousenian  Beck, I am a little surprised that we haven't heard more from centrist, progressive, and liberal Mormons (UPDATED, SEE BELOW), particularly in the wake of Beck's recent attack on mainstream Christianity. It seems to me that Mormons ought to be terribly concerned about their fellow member Beck's rhetorical violation of the Latter Day Saints' 11th Article of Faith: "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may." For while Beck isn't physically interfering with the exercise of religion (in this case "social justice," found in institutional Catholicism and American conservative Judaism, along with countless Protestant churches), his tone of disrespect and obvious attempt to counter-proselytize is contrary to the spirit of the article.

Beyond the interpretation of that article, Mormons concerned about the public face of their Church might take exception to Beck's reappropriation of the conspiracy theories of post-McCarthyite W. Cleon Skousen, complete with Ezra Taft Bensonite Mormon trappings. By delivering this to a public largely oblivious to its theological antecedents, Beck is pulling an Orson Scott Card in the political sphere: picking and choosing Mormon folklore to create a fictional universe. But while Mr. Card is a political cad, people enjoy his fantasy and science fiction and don't confuse it with reality. Beck tells his viewers and listeners that his hateful trash is reality—a reality that’s being hidden from them by evil people that need to be eliminated.  Does it really not bother any critical-minded Saints that one of their Brothers is churning their culture into genocidal trash?

Maybe not.  Maybe even progressive and moderate Mormons are as hesitant to criticize Beck as they are to criticize Skousen or Benson.  They know he's dangerous and full of shit, but he's family.  My old friend Joanna Brooks makes a sound case for linking Beck's politics to Mormon culture (if not doctrine), from the divinization of political and historical figures...
Mormon Church President Wilford Woodruff (1807–1898) declared that George Washington and the signers of the Declaration of Independence appeared to him in the Mormon Temple in St. George, Utah in 1877, and requested that he perform Mormon temple ordinances on their behalf. Many Mormons also believe that Joseph Smith prophesied in 1843 that the US Constitution would one day “hang by a thread” and be saved by faithful Mormons; this idea was given new life in the 1960s by former US Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, who cited Smith’s 1843 prophecy from the pulpit while speaking as a member of the Church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles. Beck's practice of crying on his shows...
Finally, 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.
...something far more significant in the process of emotional manipulation than many people imagine. Brooks' and Knowlton's observation about the crying phenomenon provoked much irritation among my male Mormon friends. But I think it irritated them because they know it’s true. This is the way conservative Mormons argue about public issues:

C.M. Government-run welfare programs are socialistic and offend Heavenly Father. We waged a war in Heaven over this. Satan loves socialism and government welfare.
You. (offer up a variety of counter-arguments)
C.M. The spirit of contention is also of the Devil. I don't want to argue with you. (tears welling up in eyes, sniffling begins) I know this is true. (Voice breaking) I know it.
You. Okay. (walk away feeling emotionally confused and intellectually frustrated)

Beck's anti-Christian screed will have one unintended consequence that I'm sure will make my Mormon friends cringe: It will further distinguish Beck's adopted religious tradition, Mormonism, from Christianity. The rest of the religious public sphere has roundly condemned Beck. The normally peacemaking Jim Wallis was harsher than I think I've seen him:
...since the Catholic Church, the Black Churches, the Mainline Protestant churches, more and more Evangelical and Pentecostal churches including Hispanic and Asian-American congregations all consider social justice central to biblical faith, Glenn Beck is telling all those Christians to leave their churches. Of course, Christians may disagree about what social justice means in our current political context -- and that conversation is an important one -- but the Bible is clear: from the Mosaic law of Jubilee, to the Hebrew prophets, to Jesus Christ, social justice is an integral part of God's plan for humanity. Beck says Christians should leave their social justice churches, so I say Christians should leave Glenn Beck. I don't know if Beck is just strange, just trying to be controversial, or just trying to make money. But in any case, what he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show.
Meanwhile, a Jewish blogger succinctly responded: "In a functioning civil society, people take care of each other."

The religious backlash Beck's lecture incurred won't matter to him, because while liberal Mormons are in constant dialogue with other cultures, conservative Mormons wear their provincialism with a badge of honor, conservative Mormon converts doubly so.  Ironic, too: Beck himself is a poster child for social responsibility. He's a "refugee mormon," one of many broken, addicted, burnt-out people who join the LDS church late in life. He suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. And he is responsible for the single most absurd gaffe I've ever seen come from the gaffe-prone hatemongers: a singularly absurd statement that kicked his ideological foundation out from under him--his proud admission that he learned to hate progressivism, including taxation, while reading books in the public library. "Books," he said, "are free."

Which brings to mind a third reason Mormons should call out Beck: The glory of God is intelligence, and Beck is really, really stupid.

Beck’s number may be up eventually anyway. He’s prone to overreach, and has a lot of awkward moments. Sponsors run from him like the kid at school who smells like pee. And he is even less concerned about precision and accuracy than your average hatemonger. The other day, he recruited fallen congressman Eric Massa, believing Massa’s desperate statements that his Democratic colleagues had set him up in a sex scandal as retaliation for being uncooperative on health care reform. Massa embarrassed Beck by refusing to validate the implications on the air. At Daily Kos, Jed Lewison writes: "Beck may be on top of the world right now, but if keeps on being this sloppy he's going to experience the same career arc as did Morton Downey, Jr.: a fast rise...followed by an even faster fall." Maybe after his star falls, Brother Beck will make a great Sunday school teacher in his local LDS ward. But I have a sneaking suspicion he’ll turn Jack-Mormon.

Update: I knew as soon as I asked why progressive Mormons hadn't spoken out, at least one progressive Mormon would demonstrate that, indeed, the response has been plentiful and thoughtful.  Thanks for correcting my charges of silence. 


the narrator said...

Progressive Mormons certainly have spoked up against Beck's latest rant. For starters:

matt said...

Indeed they have, Narrator. Thank you for letting me know. I'll place this in an addendum!