Monday, March 15, 2010

The Glenn Beck-Bo Gritz Continuum

I really thought I could stay away from the whole Glenn Beck thing. I mean, I've laughed at him before, like most of the people who share my political beliefs and/or my professional class have probably laughed at him, but I never got upset or outraged by any of his conspiratorial mud-slinging, because I just dismissed it. It was out there, on the corner of my consciousness, but not much more than that. I mean, he's just an entertainer, right? I don't pay attention to Rush Limbaugh either. Yes, I realize that entertainers like Limbaugh and Beck have become hugely important to the ideological structuring of what passes for "conservatism" in the United States, but honestly, I just thought I could spend whatever awareness I bother to devote to the mass media on something more worthwhile.

And, of course, that's still true. But over the past week, Beck's stupid comments about "social justice" exploded all across the internet--and, perhaps inevitably, elicited comments from numerous of my fellow Mormon bloggers, since Beck is himself a member of the Mormon church...and for him to, however unintentionally, distinguish himself, with his emotionally overwrought patriotic Mormon Christianity, from the rest of the Christian world which foolishly talks about "social justice" was just a little too much. But I didn't blog about it. It's not as though I don't understand what he presumably thinks he's saying, trying to strike back against the "collectivism" which he apparently thinks has somehow sneaked its way into Christian thought; and it's not as though I like Beck being served up as a fat, easy target for much of the religious left, who for the most part really need to do some serious soul-searching themselves. I just didn't know what I could add to the flood of commentary.

Then my old friend Matt Stannard pointed out another bit of Beckian weirdness: he has this convoluted, confused argument which equates state and federal affirmative action programs with the enslavement of human beings, and as a consequence is urging his listeners not to fill out the U.S. Census, which the Constitution requires be conducted every ten years. And all of sudden it came to me: Bo Gritz!

For those of you who don't know, or don't care, James Gordon "Bo" Gritz (rhymes with "rights") as a US Army Special Forces officer who, sometime in the 1980s, discovered countless drug-money-fueled, internationally-coordinated conspiracies working to undermine America's strength and security, its Christian heritage, its moral values, etc., etc. Your typical right-wing extremist, right? Well, actually, Gritz managed a tad more than most of them have ever dreamed. By the 1990s he'd written multiple books, successfully inserted himself into the FBI's (often, it must be admitted, incompetent) engagements with various Freemen and Christian Patriot militias and survivalist groups which proliferated during the glory years of the "New World Order" (and, not coincidentally, became a hero to many of them; he probably saved Randy Weaver's life during the botched stand-off at Ruby Ridge), and had run for president under the slogan, "God, Guns, and Gritz." And here's where it gets interesting: just about everywhere else in America, Gritz was down at the bottom of the ballot, with various other marginalized candidates...but in my Mormon homeland of Utah and Idaho, he was big news. You see, Gritz himself was, for a time anyway, a member of the Mormon church, and thus was able to plug into a lot of deeply subterranean, arch-conservative, anti-government, John-Bircher, "the Constitution-hanging-by-a-thread-and-the-elders-of-Zion-must-save-it" stuff (for contrasting approaches to that venerable bit of Mormon folklore, see here and here) which has echoed around western American Mormon culture for more than a half-century. The result was, perhaps, predictable.

I was an undergraduate at BYU at the time, working for the campus newspaper, and when the election season of 1992 rolled around we student journalists found ourselves surrounded by sometimes-amusing, sometimes-intimidating, zealous, slightly paranoid, deeply moralistic, Christian Mormon patriots. (I can remember a couple of earnest old fellows who visited the newsroom, insisted on speaking to me, and took up an hour of my time explaining how the Federal Reserve had been complicit in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.) Such folks weren't in the majority, not by any means; the great bulk of Utah voters were solid, respectable, socially conservative Republicans, and rolled their eyes at talk about the Illuminati along with the rest of us. But still: there were huge banners and billboard for Bo Gritz to be found all over the countryside. I attended a political rally/religious revival with Gritz which filled an arena up in Salt Lake City; there were thousands of people there, from all over the Intermountain West. Gritz came to a stage set with empty chairs, representing the spirits of the founding fathers, was introduced as another "Captain Moroni" (a widely admired--amongst some Mormons, anyway--military hero from the Book of Mormon), and proceeded to lecture and fulminate to great acclaim about the threats posed to America by Godless Others, the rally concluding with a frankly ritualistic burning of the United Nation's flag.

Well, Gritz earned a respectable 4% of Utah's total votes in 1992 (hey, four percent is more than Ralph Nader ever managed), and in some counties won up to 10%. Then he went off to Idaho to form his own survivalist training compound, and the Mormon church leadership eventually got around to inveighing heavily against that particular style of fundamentalist Mormon who rejects the U.S. court system as apostate and stockpiles eight years worth of wheat in their basement in preparation for Armageddon, and life went on? What does this all this have to do with Glenn Beck? I'm not suggesting there's any direct connection between the two; I'm only observing a pattern. A man finds a faith that includes elements, should he choose to look for them, of patriotic extremism, of warnings about "secret combinations" and historical conspiracies, all in the midst of a broader church culture that is strongly "conservative" (in the Republican sense, mostly) but otherwise, except in the eyes of assorted anti-cult zealots, basically a thoroughly Americanized, modernized, ordinary Christian church. (Which, not surprisingly, has reminded all its American members to be responsible citizens and fill out their census forms completely.) This means, of course, that the community must be enlightened. They must be warned. Glenn Beck, telling his listeners to beware the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing that is "social justice"? Makes perfect sense. He's proselyting, doing missionary work amongst the deluded, sharing the important information that he has discovered (or has been revealed to him? perhaps he thinks so...) with an America that has had the wool pulled over its eyes. Twenty years ago, it was the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Bill Clinton who had put the wool there; today, it's Barack Obama, health care reform, and, apparently, the U.S. Census. Any paranoid fantasy will do, because any one of them can be connected to the larger moral struggle which, for reasons both good and bad, much of my own Mormon culture and many of the Mormon teachings I accept make not just theoretically possible, but on some readings, downright credible.

I don't feel too bad about this--most of American Christianity makes possible its own fringes as well, so in a way I suppose it's comforting to know what we Mormons, just like the rest of you, have our clowns and kooks too. And hey, given that the line between fringe kookiness and thoughtful criticism is sometimes thin, I'm actually kind of grateful that we can call a nut like Beck our own: after all, someone has to keep outlandish arguments alive, just in case they someday turn out to be true. But I do feel bad for Beck himself. My friend Matt, in a different post, suggests that he's already almost entirely burned through his 15 minutes of fame--and that, in having invested so heavily in a fearful, suspicious mindset that has so little to do with the heart of the faith he has chosen, may find that after his star has been eclipsed that he won't have enough ordinary connection and commitment to the unfortunately mostly ordinary folks who fill Mormon congregations to get the kind of support from his ward that he may need. Which would be a loss--and I say that not just as a believer myself, but also as someone who, in watching clips of the show, keeps feeling that Beck himself, probably like Gritz, seriously needs a hug.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Russell. I've often wondered what the people in Beck's ward think of him. It's hard for me to imagine that the cartoonish figure we see/hear on the airwaves can exist in real life. On the other hand, I've met some real pieces of work at church, so who knows.

Rob Perkins said...

Part of me wants to say, "Meh", but I also follow other contrarians who suppose, for example, that the Iraq war was actually engineered by the Saudi Royal House and that they're also behind the ascendancy of Fox News Channel. But David Brin doesn't have nearly the reach of Glenn Beck.

And whatever else, he's got relatives of mine in his thrall, to the point where one sent one of those multi-recipient email memes to me, urging us all not to participate in the census because, putatively, the Constitution forbade it.

I calmly replied with the relevant bits of the U.S.C. which authorize the Census Bureau to ask those 10 questions, and enumerated the fines for picking on a census worker. I never got a counter-reply.

But I'm still listing "American" as my race.

And I'm actually very happy that the LDS Church has issued a counterbalancing press release. I wonder if they did the same for the "social justice" kerfluffle? I can't recall...

Matthew Stannard said...

Of course, nobody in the blogosphere has really addressed the biggest threat Beck presents to the image of his adopted church: The glory of God is intelligence, and Beck is really, really stupid.

Matt L said...

Someone should remind Beck of the early communist period of the Mormon church and see if it would make his head explode. (Most of the communist movements in the US were Christian, if I recall correctly, though it's hardly remembered today.)

I do wonder if Beck is as big of an idiot as he seems or if it's just a show. I'd like to think it can't possibly be real, but when I've met some people like him (Helen Chenoweth, to take an Idaho example) they really were that crazy and stupid, and managed to get elected.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Madhousewife, Matt, and Matt:

I also have no idea if Beck really is as ignorant and nutty in real life as he is on tv, or at least on the tv clips that get forwarded to me; for his sake, I hope not. Some of the stuff he's claimed is just so miserably stupid as to almost defy belief. But then, as Matt L. reminds me, the Intermountain West gave us Helen Chenoweth, so who knows?

Extramsg said...

Eh, he's only moderately more crazy than Denis Kucinich, making him about equal to Michael Moore.

I feel we have the making of a Fox reality show....

Anonymous said...

None of the commentators has defined "charity". You might expect a group of Mormons to undertand that charity must be freely offered, and gratitude must be returned for the charity to have been of value to either party.

I'm sure Glenn is very charitable. He just understands that Jesus Christ said "render unto Caesar that which is his", Jesus Christ didn't say "render under Caesar (note that the B of M says taxes in excess of 20% are excessive) funds so he can enslave people by offering them "economic justice and income re-distribution" so they will continue voting for Caesar."

Anonymous said...

The key is free agency. Charity is not charity unless it is a "free will offering".

When extorted from taxpayers to pad Obama's supporters pockets so they will continue voting for him, it is not a "free will offering".

As an example, the stimulus funds went to unions, SEIU, ACORN, and assorted left-wing causes and pressure groups - not a dime to help small businss people who are the engine of employment.

Aloysius said...

Anonymous you are barking up the wrong tree here. This crowd believes that they are smarter than you and me and are thus entitled to take our money. They think Glenn Beck is stupid. They are delueded but please allow them to hear their echo without any competing sounds.

Aloysius said...


Aloysius said...

RAF,I am sorry that your Mormonism is an embarrassment to you. Oh yes, it isn't Mormonism you say but Mormons. Ahh, you have a new revelation on what Mormonism is and Mormons don't get it. Okay.

Anonymous said...

"note that the B of M says taxes in excess of 20% are excessive"

Really? That's a rather unique interpretation. Let's go to the verses in question (referencing King Noah):

" 3 And he laid a atax of one fifth part of all they possessed, a fifth part of their gold and of their silver, and a fifth part of their bziff, and of their copper, and of their brass and their iron; and a fifth part of their fatlings; and also a fifth part of all their grain.
4 And all this did he take to asupport himself, and his wives and his bconcubines; and also his priests, and their wives and their concubines; thus he had changed the affairs of the kingdom."

Unless you're claiming that DC bureaucrats are using anything over 20% to fund their multiple wives and concubines, I think your interpretation is more than a little bit off. I doubt if King Noah was providing a freeway system, FDIC deposit guarantees on our savings accounts, social security checks for the Nephites in retirement, or most other services of a modern government. Most of that 20% was pretty much just gravy for buying wives, wine, and palaces. Not exactly a useful comparison to a modern society where we vote, pay taxes, and in return get services which we demand.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Ahh, you have a new revelation on what Mormonism is and Mormons don't get it.

Interesting way to put it Aloysius; I didn't think you cared so much one way or another. As it happens, I don't believed I have claimed to have received any kind of revelation about "what Mormonism is" and which members of my church "don't get it"; if I accidentally did claim such in this post, I would certainly repent of such. So no, I don't think God is necessarily on my side when I imply, on the basis of my own understanding of my (and Beck's) own church's doctrine and culture, that only borderline morons would think that Mormonism is compatible with attacks of social justice and the U.S. census. I do, however, think that some reputable scholars and my (and Beck's) own church's First Presidency are on my side when I so imply. Follow the links are argue with them, if you are so inclined.

Anonymous #12, my thanks for your comment about King Noah.

Aloysius said...

Oh the "go argue with the brethren argument". That is too old and too out of date and besides you would flay me if I used i. No I didn't quote Neal A. Maxwell on government solutions did I.

I am just one of those simple minded morons oops Mormons who thinks that the government should stay out of the Tower of Babel building business.

Aloysius said...

I wonder what the response would be if I suggested that there was a Bill Ayers/Obama continuum? The implication would be that Obama was somehow a popularizer or propagator of terrorist ideals that were actively espoused by Bill Ayers and his wife Bernadette Dohrn.

I am sure that it would be conidered offensive in the extreme yet there is a connection that is not fully clear with impacts that are highly debatable.

On the other hand what evidence justifies conflating Glen Beck and Bo Gritz? Just some minor degree of shared ideas? Bo Gritz and RAF likely share at least one or two ideas.

This whole post is horribly offensive and even more so thinking that it was written by a man who is a Mormon.

cristalyn bird said...

i'm sorry, i didnt know the topic that everyone was going to get hung up on was bo being a mormon for a minute. lol what a bunch of single minded kooks ya'll are. i mean really? NOTHING else in that whole thing jumped out at you? it seems in todays society, every single person is willing to swing that very heavy judgemental pendulum against anyone with enough intestinal fortitude to stand up and say i will not be silent. i shake my head sadly at the lumpy, lazy small brained americans that do not care what happens as long as it isnt in their neighborhood. i was born here, and will probably die here. but it wont be with any pride.