Culture » December 27, 2013
Beck Is Back
What Glenn Beck and Malcolm Gladwell have in common.
Since his forced retirement from Fox News’ fire-breathing menagerie of professional outrage in 2011, Glenn Beck hasn’t seemed like much more than an all-purpose cultural punchline: a crew-cutted avatar of the millennial-minded fringe of Tea Party paranoia. Yes, he created a new digital-radio empire around his own unhinged brandof spiritual-cum-political purity. His new franchise of apocalyptic political thrillers lands him on the bestseller list. And he amuses himself on his ranch near Dallas by spinning out ever more elaborate renditions of the great liberal scheme for world domination and designing his own line of patriotic blue jeans. Yet off the radar, he has been at play in the fields of the Lord.
Last year Beck gave the keynote address to the annual fundraiser of the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute. This once-fringe group, which is dedicated to converting Jews to Christianity en masse in order to hasten Armageddon, honored Beck with its “Defender of Israel” award. (This year’s keynoter was former President George W. Bush.)
Not only is Beck, the nation’s best known Mormon convert, a certified defender of the Jewish people, he is also the leading prophet of a Christian faith that rests on the worship of the capitalist marketplace. He’s asserted on his radio show that “this country was founded on divine providence”—and that Washington has erected a perverse anti-Christian empire “on the backs of capitalists.” This core creed sums up the bipolar state of today’s Protestant cult of money: exceptionalist and persecuted, cosmically smug and historically despairing.
In a highly revealing testament to the traction that Beck’s money faith now commands in the wider culture, New Yorker scribe Malcolm Gladwell recently sat for an interview on Beck’s TV show to tout the religious message of his latest motivational tract, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. It’s hard to say which was more disarming—the receptive hearing that Beck gave Gladwell, or the affinity between the core messages that each man is peddling.
“Sometimes people of faith don’t always understand how powerful their faith makes them,” Gladwell told Beck, summing up the message of the David saga by saying, “With superior technology and the spirit of the Lord, I am not the underdog.” Likewise, as he revisited another inspirational tale from his book, in which a poor community of dissident Protestants successfully sheltered a group of Jewish refugees in Nazi-occupied France, Gladwell marveled at their discovery that “armed with the spirit of the Lord, we can actually more than hold our own against a bunch of guys with tanks.” Indeed, in David and Goliath, Gladwell provides a string of potted, quasi-spiritual fables about underdog moments in world history that echo the same baby-simple dogmas of Beck’s free-market gospel. Gladwell chirps that underdogs can and will prevail, by upending the pride and arrogance of the powerful—and, by virtue of trusting in their own innate goodness, they acquire the mystical faith that allows them to prevail always against the odds.
Beck was blown away. “How are you writing for The New Yorker?” he asked Gladwell in amazement. “I’m just looking, listening to you, thinking: I have not heard a New York writer ever say that [to] me. Ever.”
But it’s really not surprising that Malcolm Gladwell and Glenn Beck speak the same language. Both traffic in the dogma of the American positive-thinking gospel of success: God rewards the faithful with the baubles of capitalist achievement. And both figures tweak the articles of this faith to make it seem as though they represent the hardy innovations of a persecuted, true-believing minority, rather than the inert consensus of a moneyed power elite.
Beck, as usual, drew a homiletic moral from the pair’s exchange: “What built us in the first place as a country is that we were people of faith. … That’s what made us unique, that’s what makes America. … That’s what we’ve always been, and there’s been this giant erasing of faith.”
But the real culture-wide image of America as a saving remnant of the one true faith isn’t being erased at all. It’s always been hiding in plain sight—much like the career of Glenn Beck.
Chris Lehmann, a contributing editor of In These Times, is an editor of Book Forum and the Baffler and the author of Rich People Things (Haymarket, 2011). He is now working on a book about American religion and the money culture.