08.31.10

Beck Revives the Mormons

Evangelicals have never accepted Mormonism as Christianity, but the Beck rally brought them together. Michelle Goldberg on a newly powerful political force—and how Mitt Romney could benefit.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the “Restoring Honor” rally is its establishment of Glenn Beck, a Mormon, as a major leader of the Christian right. After all, for most evangelicals, Mormonism remains a great heresy. Yet last weekend, Beck managed to surround himself with the leading lights of the Christian right, including the Texas-based Christian Zionist John Hagee and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land.

The more Mormons and evangelicals team up in the cause of Christian nationalism, the more their political agreements will trump their theological differences.

How did Beck convince tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of evangelicals to turn out for a religious revival on the National Mall? Writing about the rally, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted, snidely, that “a suspicious liberal could retort that all the God-and-Christ talk and military tributes were proof enough that a sinister Christian nationalism lurked beneath the surface” of Beck’s movement. Douthat was wrong: Beck’s Christian nationalism isn’t beneath the surface at all. It’s right on top.

It’s long been obvious, at least to those of us who follow the religious right, that the ostensibly secular Tea Party movement is deeply imbued with the ideology. In my 2006 book, Kingdom Coming, The Rise of Christian Nationalism, I tried to describe the worldview of the Christian right—its belief that the United States began as a Christian nation, blessed for its piety, before sinking to unimaginable lows as secularism gained ground. In the Christian nationalist imagination, the true catastrophe started with the New Deal, which brought socialism to America and turned government, rather than churches, into guarantors of social welfare. The Christian nationalist mind-set is apocalyptic: Time is always running out, a Satanic, hideously powerful enemy is always on the verge of instituting tyranny, and only a brave band of utterly committed believers can restore the nation to its lost glory.

Beck’s rally made the connection between the Tea Party and Christian nationalism explicit, as he called for Americans to go to “ God boot camp” in preparation for a coming “global storm.” He drew heavily on the work of David Barton, a revisionist Christian nationalist historian and staple of Christian right literature. Barton specializes in combing through history and stringing together out-of-context quotes to argue that the founders intended for Christianity to serve as the basis of American government. In the early ’90s, as I reported in my book, he spoke at white supremacist events, but has since climbed into the Christian right mainstream. Beck has been championing Barton all year, and Barton spoke at Beck’s Divine Destiny pre-rally event on Friday at the Kennedy Center.

There’s not much new in Beck’s ideology. A lot of it is familiar from the John Birch Society, a group founded in the 1950s by rabidly anti-communist businessmen given to elaborate conspiracy theories and religious fundamentalism. But if Christian nationalism isn’t novel, it has never before had a Mormon at its head. In some ways, the religion is too Christian nationalist for the Christian nationalists, as it relocates essential parts of Christian history from the Middle East to the United States. According to Mormon doctrine, an ancient Hebrew tribe traveled to North America before Christ’s birth. It split into the good, fair-skinned Nephites and the Lamanites, “a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people” who eventually slaughtered the Nephites. (Mormons believe that the Lamanites are the forefathers of today’s Native Americans.) Evangelicals might see the United States as a providential nation, but only the Mormons believe that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri and that Jesus Christ visited North America after his resurrection.

Evangelicals have never accepted Mormonism as a branch of Christianity. Indeed, in the early 20th century, Christian writers often compared it to Islam. After all, it was polygamous and militant, born from the vision of a prophet claiming to be the latest in the Judeo-Christian lineage. As the Baptist author of the 1911 book Mormonism: The Islam of America put it, “[T]here is no other body of people from whom we have so much to fear in proportion to their numbers.”

According to Jan Shipps, one of the country’s foremost historians of Mormonism, when Jerry Falwell was organizing the Moral Majority, he initially made a place for Mormons, but other members were so upset that he basically rescinded his welcome.

Such suspicion has endured almost to this day. In a 2007 Pew Poll, more than a third of evangelical Republicans expressed reservations about voting for a Mormon presidential candidate, and most white evangelicals averred that Mormons aren’t Christian. Concerns about his Mormonism dogged Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid, leading to his “ Faith in America” speech: “Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy,” he said. “If they are right, so be it.” Beck’s Mormonism—he converted from Catholicism a decade ago—has also sometimes earned him hostility from the Christian right. In 2008, Focus on the Family pulled an interview with Beck off its website after complaints that it endorsed Mormonism.

Conscious of mainstream hostility, in the past Mormons have usually at least paid lip service to religious pluralism and church/state separation, since the church is protected by both. “The Church of Latter-day Saints’ theology is built around the notion of Christian nationalism, even though for tactical reasons they tend to publicly support separation of church and state, because of the history of attacks on them, both ideological and physical,” said Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a think tank that tracks right-wing movements. Mormons have rarely led attacks on other faiths, be they Islam or progressive Christianity.

Rarely, that is, until Beck. On Sunday, speaking on Fox, Beck assailed Obama’s religion, saying it’s all about “reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation…It’s a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it.” And, of course, Beck has been attacking Islam all summer. Earlier in August, he called Park51, the planned Muslim community center near ground zero, the “‘Allah tells me to blow up America’ mosque.”

In some ways, Beck’s ability to foster a Mormon alliance with evangelicals is very good news for Mitt Romney. The more Mormons and evangelicals team up in the cause of Christian nationalism, the more their political agreements will trump their theological differences. “There are lots of evangelicals that have fallen into Glenn Beck’s camp,” said Shipps. “It’s important to think about it this way: Beck is a convert. He knows how to talk the language of the Christian right, unlike Romney, who has been a Mormon all his life.”

In this, as in so much else, Beck owes a debt to the John Birch Society. Mormons played a prominent role in the JBS, and it was, said Berlet, “one of the first avenues by which Mormons were accepted in the Christian right.” As Shipps pointed out, Ezra Taft Benson, the 13th president of LDS church, was “very much a John Birch Society person.” So was W. Cleon Skousen, a far-right Mormon conspiracy theorist whose work Beck champions. Few things bring people together like a common enemy. Before it was communism, now it’s Obama. In this way at least, our president has ushered in a new era of religious tolerance.

Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.