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How Glenn Beck Re-Invented Himself as a Crying Conservative

Glenn Beck's strange TV: Mormon masterpiece theater.

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Beck likes to say that his tears are biologically determined, that he’s “90 percent ‘chick’ in that category.” It’s a revealing statement, not just for himself but for his more macho peers as well. With his constant crying and effeminate hand gestures, “Glenda” Beck apotheosizes the gender blending that has always been at the heart of right-wing talk radio.

“On talk radio in the 1980s and 1990s, ” writes Susan Douglas, a media historian at the University of Michigan, “masculinity was constructed as a fusion of traditionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits. Boys were supposed to be boys, meaning white, heterosexual boys, but they were also gender poachers, recuperating masculinity at the end of the century by infusing it with the need to chat, the need to confess insecurities, the need to be hysterical and overwrought about politics, the need to make the personal political.”

But when it comes to public crying as vaudeville, Beck owes less to universal womanhood than to a very specific brotherhood. He’s not stereotypically premenstrual as much as classically Mormon. Like so much else that baffles people about Beck, his approach to public tears has been shaped in the crucible of his adopted faith. It was the lachrymose Latter-Day Saints who turned an amateur crybaby pro.

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During the first weekend of October 2009, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints held its semiannual general conference in Salt Lake City. For two days, church leaders sermonized on the power of the Holy Spirit and railed against pornography, a “potent tool of Lucifer.” In turn, the speakers described powerful spiritual experiences in highly personal terms. Throughout the telling, often at similar dramatic turns, many speakers appeared on the verge of being overwhelmed by emotion. Sometimes the emotion broke through. Voices cracked, throats caught, eyes misted over. To the uninitiated, it seemed as if the speakers were all imitating Glenn Beck.

Among the practices that distinguish Mormonism from other forms of Christianity is a highly stylized social ritual known as bearing testimony. On the first Sunday of each month, Mormons gather at their local ward house to speak about “what they know to be true.” The format is something like a cross between an open-mic poetry slam and an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. One by one, congregants give semi-structured speeches—testimonies—that deal with a central theme; each one usually lasts no longer than a few minutes. These testimonies, structured like radio monologues, describe the feeling of being overwhelmed by the love of Jesus, of struggling against temptation, and of maintaining full dedication to the restoration of the gospel. As the speakers relive these feelings, it is common for them to emote within circumscribed boundaries.

Because they are such emotional events in which pure feeling trumps argument or rhetoric, some consider the ritual to be the Mormon equivalent of speaking in tongues. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism describes it as follows:

Bearing testimony is based on [the belief] that the power that motivates individuals to live as Christ taught is the power of the Holy Ghost, rather than the power of logic or the eloquence of gospel teachers. . . . This is illustrated by Brigham Young’s account of his own conversion when an LDS missionary bore his testimony: “If all the talent, tact, wisdom and refinement of the world had been sent to me with the Book of Mormon, and had declared, in the most exalted of earthly eloquence, the truth of it, undertaking to prove it by learning, and worldly wisdom, they would have been to me like the smoke which arises only to vanish away. But when I saw a man without eloquence, or talents for public speaking, who could only say, ‘I know, by the power of the Holy Ghost, that the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith is a prophet of the Lord,’ the Holy Ghost proceeding from that individual illuminated my understanding, and light, glory, and immortality were before me. I was encircled by them, filled with them, and I knew for myself that the testimony of the man was true.”

Those who study Mormon rituals and rhetoric say that the fingerprints of bearing testimony can be found all over Beck’s public tearfulness. “Beck’s ability to ‘cry on cue’ appears to be a combination of Mormon culture and the practiced delivery of a media professional,” says Daymon M. Smith, a Mormon doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. “He is using Mormon tactics to spread Mormon ideas, such as the gospel of Cleon Skousen, under the cover of secular political revelations.”

“Beck’s emotional performances are very like Mormon testimonies,” agrees David Knowlton, a Mormon cultural anthropologist at Utah Valley University. “Beck has married two rhetorical styles: the quiet, Mormon sense of emotion present during key moments in testimony, and the bombast of more mainstream evangelical performances. Mormons and evangelicals simply do not trust reason to the same degree they trust feeling. George W. Bush also tapped into this with his elevation of gut over mind.”

When viewed in the context of Mormon practice, Beck’s public crying begins to make more sense. Like his Millennialist politics, they cause liberals to laugh but command respect from Mormon and evangelical religious conservatives. This helps to explain the yawning comprehension gap between his religious fans and his secular critics. Secular liberals watch Beck’s cheap theatrics and see unmanly, dishonest, and possibly insane behavior. Mormons and like-minded evangelicals, especially Pentecostals, see familiar signposts associated with masculinity, sincerity, and even authority.

“The tears of Mormon men are emblems of sincerity,” says Knowlton. “This is the role of light crying from the stand, when one chokes up and may even tear up. Public crying gets more common as one climbs the ladder of church authority. Mormonism praises the man who is able to shed tears as a manifestation of spirituality. Testimony is both a formal genre and a performance of personhood that marks a transition from a mundane to a mystical way of knowing. The emotion involved is a symbol of righteousness.”

It is also the ultimate rhetorical punch. “Nothing can silence a Mormon congregation like a voice crack from a speaker,” says Brad Kramer, a Mormon anthropologist who writes on Mormon politics and culture. “The testimonial style unites an unquestioning audience, and they too may report feeling, as a sort of divine contagion, the truth of another’s testimony.”

It is hard to imagine a religion better suited to Beck’s emotional neediness, unrivaled egomania, and hack entertainment chops than the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Mormonism has not only made an art of fake crying, it has institutionalized Beck’s favorite mode of speech, the sentimental monologue. It also encourages a certainty of spirit based on self-revelation that lies outside argument, fact, or logic. What Beck does on radio and television is an amped-up version of the testimony ritual: he fervently talks about what he believes— knows—is happening, describes the dark secrets he has uncovered, conveys the transcendent importance of these discoveries, and frames it all in a Manichean narrative straight out of the Book of Mormon—America as a battlefield on which God-fearing defenders of liberty face off against evil big-government conspirators.

The way Beck has built his movement and his audience is a microcosm of the method by which the Mormon Church grew into a worldwide religion. Like an earnest young missionary spreading the good word through emotional speeches to confused Latin American villagers, Beck has brought his gut self-revelations to the angry, not-so educated audiences of Fox News and AM talk-radio, employing emotional intensity overflowing into tears to conquer doubts of his sincerity and prove his access to powerful truths. By asking his viewers to “join him”—in the 9.12 Project, as a “constitutional watchdog,” for his 100-year plan—or to “follow him” (as he says at the beginning of each Fox broadcast), he is offering viewers a chance to share in his revelation.

Bear testimony; recruit. Bear testimony; recruit.

 
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