This is not a post about all talk-radio hosts, nor about the left’s entertainer/newsman Jon Stewart (an interesting comparison to our subject), nor about the theology of Mormonism, nor on how many people attended the Restoring Honor rally, nor about the proper separation of church and state, nor even about how to use the tools of modern media to fullest advantage – as our subject certainly does.
It is about media personality Glenn Beck: where his culture war is taking him, and whether or not we should be along for the ride. More than simply one of many news sources, Beck has quickly gained an intensely devoted audience. Respected, God-fearing friends of mine have a “shrine of Glenn” at their home, full of his books and materials. To his credit, Beck tells his audience continually to question with boldness – so, I am.
I once was part of this crowd. “Here’s a guy who gets it and knows how to speak to today’s audiences,” I thought, never missing his radio show for months. Upon closer observation, Beck’s subtle flaws became clear.
The buzz around Beck has gotten so big, let me address a larger audience. As I am committed to both evangelical Christianity and political conservatism, you may question whether my views are dangerous or wrongly balanced. Perhaps they are sometimes.
Here’s the thing: for many Americans, Christians among them, politics and public policy is a habit picked up every four years or so. Others of us study and think about these ideas everyday because it’s part of our job or calling. If you’re in the former group, especially if you lean more to the left, God bless you. We trusting in the same Father matters more than sharing political ideology.
You may not like this blog though. Ask me sometime why I see politics from the lens of conservatism. For now, “Just smile and wave, boys, just smile and wave.”
Back to where we started… What Beck wants is for you, Mr. or Ms. Conservative, to watch his show; my case is why you should do so with a very critical eye, or not at all.
Conservatives must learn to reason and debate well, which won’t happen if we play it loose with reality (political or otherwise), if we never question simplistic arguments, and if we marry spiritual and political activism in a passionate, emotional fling.
But before the crit, a word on Why is Beck so incredibly successful?
My theory: he is a very talented entertainer, and he is the ultimate coalition-builder.
The entertainment factor gets people in the door – the funny voices he does, witty banter with his producers, soaking a guest with gasoline, and a hundred other things. Beck started as a radio DJ, bicycle horn on-air and all. Today, he still plays the part, though it’s a tongue-in-cheek humor sensitive to not offending his increasingly faith-based audience. As writers tell me humor is the hardest thing to do well, Beck talking four hours on-air daily is no small feat.
In terms of rallying folks to his cause, look no further than those involved in the Restoring Honor rally. From James Dobson to Bishop Harry Jackson, from Rabbi Daniel Lapin to Jerry Falwell Jr., conservative religious leaders are lining up behind Beck like he’s the second coming of Billy Graham. In short: Beck out-Palins Palin. Unlike her, his fun-to-watch programs also bring in edgy libertarians, economy-minded centrists, and right-leaning politicos motivated by many diverse issues.
Influential leaders are among Beck’s fans not only due to his magnetic personality; Beck truly enjoys people and believes each person has unlimited potential.
How could such a funny, outgoing guy – seemingly doing a world of good – create trouble?
1. Glenn Beck Plays it Loose with Reality
Working in a Congressman’s office gives you a new perspective. Today, more so than Limbaugh, Levin, Hannity or Dobson, it’s good ol’ Glenn Beck who generates the highest number of calls to Capitol Hill… usually on bogus issues.
A prime example of this is HR 2499, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2010. Now, the issue of Puerto Rico’s past and future status is quite complex; dig into this 54-page CRS report if you’re curious. This latest bipartisan bill was designed to give the citizens of Puerto Rico a path of self-determination, laying out a long process of possibilities.
Beck boils it all down to the caption of this video: “Call your Congressman or get ready to sew another star on the flag”:
Politics is, by nature, boring and complicated. It’s easier if you color every political issue with red and blue crayons then tell people, “OK, blue is the bad guy.” As long as he’s getting top ratings, Beck has no qualms about miseducating his audience on conservative ideals… not to mention breaking every basic principle of journalism.
To understand how this came to be, look back at how Fox News started with a journalist on a culture war. Like him or not, Bill O’Reilly spent years as a reporter at ABC News. Sure, he has an ego, but O’Reilly is fair and he understands the big ideas of our time. Then Fox ups the ante. To capitalize on anti-media sentiment, why not give a prime-time slot to an “average Joe”? Enter Glenn Beck.
Whereas the purpose of journalism is to inform, Beck’s is to entertain. In this case, a real news outlet would follow-up: “HR 2499, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, passed the House, here’s where it stands now…” After working his audience into a frenzy over this issue, Beck went right past explaining the bill’s next steps; he just pulled another rabbit out of his hat.
One rabbit Beck keeps tugging on is the need to “go back to simpler times,” to return to the virtuous and untainted past of America’s yesteryear. The problem is, such a time never existed in real life:
And the rewriting of history leads us to a related problem…
2. Beck Marries Spiritual and Political Activism – in a Fling of Emotion
I was surprised by what I found at Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally. It wasn’t a political event: no signs, no chanting, no get-out-the-vote closing directive. Social issues like abortion were mentioned only in the margins, primarily by Dr. Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; trying to censor her remarks would have been disrespectful of the day.
Yet the overall tone of the event was not just reverent: it was downright evangelistic. As I looked out across over 300,000 people (that’s according to a friend I spoke with days later at the National Park Service) gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, anyone could tell: Glenn Beck owns the Christian right. These were church-going, family-raising folks who saw something in this heavyset shock-jock that inspired them to drive across the country and be counted in his crusade.
What did they hear? Stirring music, the soothing voice of Glenn Beck, mixed with some interesting proclamations: “Our hope is based on our founders” … “We can either look at our scars, or let our scars redeem us” … “It is up to us”… and a lot of statements that began with, “There was a time when…”
For Glenn Beck, emotion (laughter, tears, anger, fear, nostalgia) trumps reason and facts every time. He reaches similar conclusions to orthodox Christianity, but how Beck gets there is not in keeping with the words of Christ: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). God cares about us using our minds fully for Him. Beck is so good at playing an emotional trump card, you don’t even realize it’s happening.
I can’t deny Beck and those he champions say much that is true. Not only politically, but also about the intersection of faith and government, about family as a central social institution, about respecting our fellow man, about natural law undergirding legislative powers. In fact, they get so much right that Beck is now accorded the status of a prophet in many circles.
Which is where many well-meaning people get derailed. “That Glenn Beck, we need to pray for his protection everyday, the enemy is out to destroy his prophetic voice,” the head of an international ministry told me privately.
Do pray for Glenn Beck, seriously. Just recognize this man is an entertainer who makes no secret of that fact.
3. Beck Trips Up on His Own Ego
My life journey has, for whatever reason, placed me very close to large, influential organizations who grew to critical mass proclaiming our role on the “frontlines of defending truth and right”: Oral Roberts University, New Life Church in Colorado Springs, the Republican Party… I could go on.
Each organization has recently faced far-reaching scandals. Most have regained balance in their mission and learned something in the process (jury is still out on the latter).
Why am I telling you this? In each case, we were so caught up in the bubble – the internal culture and excitement of being part of something “good” and bigger than ourselves – that we missed warning signs our leaders’ words and actions were telegraphing to us. Implicit trust in these leaders, without thought of accountability, created a stage upon which their ego had free reign.
Ironically, the one commentator who applied this most purely to Beck said it directly to him on-air. On the Glenn Beck Prayer Podcast (yeah, that really exists), James Robison spoke a message from Isaiah 50 – urging America to “Begin to walk in God’s light, instead of our own light.”
Listen carefully to Beck. Even with his move from newsertainment to “inspirational” programming, count how many times in an hour he tells his audience to sign up for his subscribers-only service. Consider how much e-newsletter space is devoted to mocking anyone who criticizes him. And, in his three-hour patriotic love letter to his vast conservative faith-driven audience, where does Beck draw a line between the kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of God? Erasing those lines, muddling theology for millions of Americans, does not line up with the Gospel.
If we platform Glenn Beck as a religious leader, we are setting up new Christians to be sorely disappointed by their patron saint. Result: even more people bitter at Jesus Christ and His followers. Though only in my twenties, I’ve seen this movie many times – the ending is a real downer.
Not only have I been part of Beck’s audience, sometimes I still am. I love a good laugh, and I always get it with Glenn Beck: often at his jokes, sometimes at his inconsistencies.
We could all learn something from this singular entertainer about the importance of sharp humor, being transparent about past problems, and taking bold actions based on your beliefs. Not to mention how to master technology and multiple media platforms.
But if it’s cogent political analysis, cultural commentary, or (good heavens) anything coming close to Bible teaching, thankfully, we have so many better sources to turn to.