Religion in Society

Mormonism Made a Man Out of Glenn Beck

| by Reason Foundation

From Alternet comes an improbable but entertaining pathologization of popular FOX talk show host Glenn Beck. According to San Jose State University professor, Joanna Brooks, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints didn't just save Beck's soul. It changed his affect and sense of self in ways that can't be explained as the simple consequences of cutting out coffee:

"I was baptized on a Sunday, and on Monday" -- Beck’s throat tightens again; he wipes tears from his eyes with his index fingers -- "an agent called me out of the blue." Three days later, Beck was offered his own political talk radio show at WFLA-AM in Tampa, Florida, the job that put him on the road from "morning zoo" radio prankster to conservative media heavyweight.

Spiritual narratives of the I-once-was-lost-now-I-am-financially-sound variety are commonplace within Mormonism, which, like most of American Protestantism, has never been allergic to wealth. The institutional culture of the Mormon Church is strongly corporate, down to the dark suits, white shirts, and red or blue ties church leaders wear instead of vestments; Mormonism’s most powerful public figures like Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman Jr., and Bill Marriott Jr., come from the business world.

Did the hunktacular Nephi help Glenn Beck's sense of masculinity? Treatments of this nature should always get the invidious-comparison rhetorical trick, so here goes: Imagine an article called "How Judaism Created Michael Savage," purporting to explain that fiery talker's odd behavior through reference to the weird folkways of his small yet influential religion. (The original version of the article merely claims the church "built" Beck.)

Brooks is conversant in the vocabulary of gender construction, and has some fun with Beck's febrile sentimentality, his apparently un-Mormon tendency to self-aggrandize, and what is generally agreed to be his creepiest or most endearing habit:

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This judge looked an inmate square in the eyes and did something that left the entire courtroom in tears:

Finally, Beck’s oft-ridiculed penchant for punctuating his tirades with tears is the hallmark of a distinctly Mormon mode of masculinity. As sociologist David Knowlton has written, "Mormonism praises the man who is able to shed tears as a manifestation of spirituality." Crying and choking up are understood by Mormons as manifestations of the Holy Spirit. For men at every rank of Mormon culture and visibility, appropriately-timed displays of tender emotion are displays of power.

I don't want to traffic in crude stereotypes, but crying is exactly the same as being the passive partner in anal sex. More power to Beck if he can make money while doing it in public, in defiance of durable and restrictive mainstream notions of manliness. And good on the LDS Church if it helped him to get there. The last time America wanted to see a grown man cry was during the Sensitive Guy trend of the 1970s, which predictably turned out to be just another cover for male self-indulgence.

I still think your notions about gender are largely formed by the time you have reached the age Beck was when he converted. He grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, whose wickedly delicious approach to masculinity makes salvation dependant in part on showing extraordinary deference to a man who wears a dress and lives in a "rectory" with other men. Make of that what you will.