Thursday, March 25, 2010

Glenn Beck and the Book of Love

The Book of Love

The book of love is long and boring
No one can lift the damn thing
It's full of charts and facts and figures
and instructions for dancing

But I
I love it when you read to me
And you
You can read me anything

The book of love has music in it
In fact that's where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb

But I
I love it when you sing to me
And you
You can sing me anything

(Song by Stephin Merritt
Sung by Peter Gabriel on "Scratch My Back," 2010)

Glenn Beck has become a common topic on blogs and in newspapers and ejournals. In case you've been living in the middle of nowhere for some time now, Beck (who proudly explained his conversion to Mormonism by announcing that he joined the LDS Church so that his wife would marry and have sex with him) took his loud-mouthed show from CNN to Fox News, where he surely fits in much better. He has made the headlines most recently for his tirade against social justice, urging listeners to flee churches that espoused those principles (like that of Jim Wallis), comparing them with Nazism and Communism. I'm proud to see that two of my friends and colleagues have publicly called him out.

First, Joanna Brooks responded with fire by quoting social justice passages from the Book of Mormon, noting the effect his statements have for her:
Glenn Beck is a Mormon. So am I. During the nineteenth century, my Mormon ancestors crossed the plains to live their faith without fear of attack from the mobs that had hounded them out of Missouri and Illinois.
Watching Glenn Beck threaten to "bring the hammer down" on another person of faith makes my stomach turn.
Later, there was an absolutely scathing response to Beck from Jana Riess on the "Faiths and Prayer" blog:
Dear Glenn Beck,
Have You Read the Book of Mormon Lately?
As you know, Glenn, during the last week, Christians of all stripes have debated your advice about exiting any churches that mentioned “social justice” or “economic justice” on their websites or preached it in their sermons. As you apparently hoped, you have dominated the airwaves. The good news for me is that, if you follow your own advice, you must soon be exiting The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which we are both members. And if that happens, I will dance a little jig.

I couldn't help but laugh out loud!

And so . . . Here is my take on the phenomenon of Glenn Beck:

It occurs to me that Beck functions for Mormons in similar ways as Stephenie Meyer and her Twilight series: He allows Mormons to enter mainstream popular culture in ways they wouldn't otherwise be able to, which can be very affirming of historical Mormon identity.

In addition, I also believe he may be an expression of the phenomenon I'm writing about in my dissertation. In a "secularized" (read: routinized, demythologized) Mormonism (which looks more like mainline Protestantism than the mystical tradition established by Joseph Smith), Beck reenchants the experience of being Mormon . . . or at the very least he reawakens the Mormon cultural memory of prophetic millennialism. In other words, Mormonism is missing that distinctiveness, that tension of persecuted otherness. The "living prophet" rarely speaks on political issues unrelated to gay marriage, so Beck becomes the prophet-cum-Ezra Taft Benson.

Finally, Beck is so nasty that Mormons are able to live vicariously through him in a whole new way--and even voice their suppressed thoughts and feelings about the way the world works. Ordinarily, Mormons behave passive aggressively because we have demonized disagreement/dissent. (I include myself in this category, though I've spent the better half of the last decade trying to learn new ways of being). But Beck has a platform that allows him (pays him generously) to say whatever he thinks. Unlike the rest of us, he doesn't have to be "nice" all the time. Mormons admire him for that and, even if just subconsciously, wish to be (like) him. He gets to be the Brigham Young who thumbs his nose at the government and everyone else. He also apparently escapes censure by church authorities, which makes him an even larger icon in the Mormon imagination.

From my perspective, Beck makes a prosperous living from inciting (an activity markedly different from in-sighting, or making in-sightful). He has an impact in the world--and not a positive one. The LDS Church felt compelled to make a statement not long ago that doesn't name Beck (or other caustic commentators) directly but responds to his type of fear-based hatemongering, ironically titled "The Mormon Ethic of Civility." Which makes me wonder at what point the church might take away his temple recommend for sowing hatred and division, but that's none of my business. (Given the kind of person one is supposed to be being in the world in order to get one of those, one might just be tempted to do a jig over that.)

(Glenn Beck image from