Question [Glenn Beck] With Boldness

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:

WATCH: Best segment ever produced on the ‘Nostalgia’ argument of the right

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.”

James Robison (Life Outreach International) on Glenn Beck Prayer Podcast – Aug. 25, 2010

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.

In conclusion

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.

He's not really a Professor - Beck just plays one on TV

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.

9 responses to “Question [Glenn Beck] With Boldness

  1. Well articulated advice — a warning that all could use. I have never found Glenn Back to be quite so unsettling, but that is certainly because I look upon him as a guy with a TV show; moreover, my circle of friends are primarily people whose reactions to Glenn Beck are quite different from those described in Josh’s essay. I have Christian friends who criticize him for being theologically unsound; I have non-Christian friends who think he has a Christian religious program; I have libertarian friends who criticize him for being a neo-con; I have conservative friends who criticize him for being too libertarian; and I just don’t have many friends who would vaguely buy his show ‘hook, line, and sinker’ without question. Consequently, my experience to Glenn Beck’s show is very different from that described by Josh, although everything in his essay certainly rang true as I thought about the different audiences (Tea Parties, for example) that I had addressed across the country in my job over the past year. Both politics and religion are very, very important facets in my life. Therefore, I would approach neither without a healthy dose of skeptcism. If any leader, theological or political, seems too good to be true, then it’s time to think. I see Glenn Beck as performing an important function for the American culture at this time in our nation’s history: his recommendation of books, his education on history, his focus on sound values. But to translate that function into something of a messianic figure, some sort of prophet, some sort of new George Washington is beyond my comprehension. It is a grave error. But as Thomas Jefferson often said, “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” In balance, Glenn Beck adds an important and needed element to the political debate in this country, and in the absence of substantive political leaders, I can understand how he fills a vacuum and why he might be put on a pedestal. But that would still be a mistake.

  2. Thanks for the input, Chris! Love the Jefferson quote.

    It’s great Beck has become a conservative Oprah, spurring the sale of many political and history classics. Beck’s own books, as well as some others recommended (The Five Thousand Year Leap, George Washington’s Sacred Fire), are questionable either in their conclusions, tone or historical accuracy. Reading and considering our history is always worthwhile, so I do not doubt folks have gained something from Beck’s recommendations.

  3. I don’t know…I kind of see Glenn as a reluctant leader*. I think he “gets it” that we aren’t in a battle against flesh & blood, so we therefore need to look to the Lord for answers. I also think he is mis-lead in his own religion, and therefore is somewhat trying to figure it (truth) out as he goes along. From what I’ve observed, I’d say folks are drawn to him because he seems to be in sincere pursuit of truth. Is he stubbling along the way? Of course! And it must be very hard to stumble like that with millions watching and critiquing his every word. So, I have to say, I like good Ol’ Glenn. I don’t hang on his every word or believe everything he’s ever said or written, but I appreciate the fact that he’s willing to “put himself out there” and take all the mud slinging & threats against himself and his family in order to do what I believe, he believes, is “the right thing”. The fact that he does it in such an entertaining way is a bonus. He really does seem to try to get it right the first time by researching things and having experts on his show (mostly people of good character). I guess the best way to summarize what
    I see him doing is that he discovers a “truth”, it changes his life for the better (in many cases) and wants to share it with the world in order to help others “get it”. He also wants to warn others of things that he sees as dangerous that he doesn’t think anyone else will uncover. I think he tries to credit the Lord (as he best knows Him) as the source of all that is good and right and just.

    I would completely agree with you regarding how people are responding to Glenn as a prophet or infallible leader–it’s VERY dangerous to following any human to that level. But I don’t think Glenn would agree with either characterizations of him.

    *I say “reluctant leader” because I think he did go into this as an informative entertainer and found himself unexpectantly in a position of power and leadership. I think he knows the enormity of that responsibility and truly tries to do what is right, but struggles with the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual beatings that come along with it (as we all would). I don’t think he’s motivated by power, wealth or prestige as so many are today. It doesn’t appear to be “all about him”. Will he get caught up in that from time to time? Of course! But it’s not what drives him.

    I think we all need to remember Glenn in prayer because this is a spiritual battle and I know that he is weary. I think his prayer request from us would be that he isn’t deceived in his pursuit of truth and that he never turns anyone away from the Lord.

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful post, Josh! Hope all is well with you. :)

  4. One of the more thoughtful and well-articulated analysis I’ve read. Orson Scott Card, who wrote the sci fi classic Ender’s Game had a character (whose role was to tell the unvarnished truth about people so their community would fully understand them after they died) say something that has always stuck with me: “I’m not sure it’s possible to fully understand someone without loving them, or perhaps once you fully understand them you can’t help but start to come to love them.” That concept seems embodied in this post.

    Beck tends to bring out extreme emotions in people, but you clearly approached Beck from a place of acceptance and support which has provided a clear insight into some of the dangers and extremes you highlight so well in this piece. Thanks for the read. I hope a lot of folks get a chance to experience your perspective.

  5. I’d just add that Beck is too willing to throw real or imagined political rivals under the bus. It’s not just a willingness to play fast and loose with facts. It’s a fundamental attitude of populist condescension – i.e., pride in prejudices.

  6. Good article and excellent perspective!

    As a semi-post-evangelical and political conservative who takes seriously the role of Christian thought and values in the public sector, I think its very important not to get carried away by people who agree (and vote) with “us.” And I fear that while Beck and others like him may be making some big waves in a direction I may agree with, his methods, reasoning (or lack thereof) and mobilization may end up hurting the cause he is trying to help.

    Have you been to the Holocaust museum in dc? They have a great temporary exhibit on propaganda you don’t want to miss. Sadly, some of the ways that Beck and others engage the “religious right” seemed similar to the methods highlighted there. And that’s probably because of the media-driven system that is simply a reality for so much of politics here or anywhere.

    But I worry that if too many people “follow” Beck and his rhetoric, a significant part of the church and the American electorate will find themselves out on a limb politically that they cannot justify or maintain intelligently.

    I guess some evangelicals who major on theology – especially those in the reformed camp – seem to say the same thing to those who are more “heart” or conversion / decision focused: “If you just focus on emotions and altar calls, you will never develop mature faith in people that does something in the real world.” With Beck, I feel the same way – he may get votes for candidates and laws that I agree with, beyond that, is He helping Christians and conservatives to develop a voice that impacts and affects national discourse in the long term? Or is he rallying (and polarizing) a wave that cant sustain itself on the shock logic and entertainment based reasoning that seems to catalyze it in the moment…

    Anyway, late night thoughts typed on an iPhone, we’ll see how coherent they are in the am!

  7. Stephanie,
    I hear you here, and even at the rally – on a picture-perfect DC day – I left thinking, this was good. Who doesn’t like being affirmed for their faith and way of life? The thing I question is that good ol’ Glenn rarely spends resources on things that do not benefit his image. In the last weeks before an election, he’d be better off telling people to locally help out a candidate they believe in… rather than promoting and selling more books. Though there are good, achievable outcomes in sight, Beck is working towards something else – I’m just not sure what. It’s scattershot at best.

    Eric, I am humbled by your comments, thank you.

    Ben, Totally right. Beck is Exhibit A on vilifying your opponents… though I appreciate that he has some nuance on the Mosque controversy and puts out the freedom of religion argument.

    Steven, I think that’s great analysis. Beck’s greatest energy is usually in a negative direction – a wave surging on average Joe sarcasm, surface-level facts, urgent concern (biblical jeremiads at times) and a dose of conspiracy theory. This crowd may kill some bills – most need killing right now – and perhaps shake-up election results. But the difficult process of good governance is not helped along at all. Cynicism and judgment are heaped even on those hard-working legislators wanting to serve their people well. And that’s wrong.

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