News & Politics

Glenn Beck's Messiah Complex

Rupert Murdoch's community organizer says that God speaks through him. Does Beck think he's the Second Coming? (His followers just may think so.)

The record for self-appointed messiahs isn't good. (Kool-Aid anyone?) But that appears to be the path Glenn Beck is headed down -- not that he'd ask his followers to die for him; he just wants them, for a handful of self-righteous feel-good, to sell their grandchildren's future well-being into the coffers of billionaires David Koch and Rupert Murdoch.

In the months since his February appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Beck has added a new element to his customary line of wild-eyed, secular political conspiracy theories: his implied anointment as God's messenger, ordained to save the country and "restore honor" to its culture.

This month, he added a morning prayer segment to his daily radio program, and has described as "divine providence" his purportedly accidental selection of the date for the rally he will lead tomorrow on both the anniversary of and at the same site as Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. He has told his followers to expect a "miracle" on the day of the rally. And tonight, Beck's production company, Mercury Radio Arts, will produce a pre-game event at the (cough) Kennedy Center, modestly titled "Glenn Beck's Divine Destiny" (until it was apparently renamed "America's Divine Destiny" this morning, per the flyers handed ticket-seekers who were turned away).

However tempting it may be to dismiss Beck's faith-based grandiosity as delusional derangement, there's likely more than a bit of strategy involved in the revamped Beck formula, which is ultimately designed to marshal resentful white people to the anti-regulatory agenda of Rupert Murdoch, CEO of the parent company of Beck's employer, Fox News.

When the billionaire backers of the astroturf group, Americans for Prosperity Foundation (whose board is chaired by David Koch), first drew together the disparate pockets of discontent that formed the initial core of the Tea Party movement, they focused on the secular but personal issue of health care reform. This was a deliberate choice, a way of broadening the circle of those comprising the ranks of the right's ground troops, of bringing in those who share with the religious right a disdain for government, if not the evangelicals' intrusive agenda on issues of sexuality.

Now, it's election time. The dons of the Tea Party movement need the ground organizing know-how and data mines of the Religious Right, just as they need to rouse in secular, libertarian-minded types a fervor of religious proportions in order to keep these self-defined rugged individualists engaged to do the foot-work of get-out-the-vote efforts and phone-banking -- traditionally communitarian efforts, which is why church-based organizing was so effective in the 1980s. And so Beck has refashioned America's civic religion of Constitution and Founding Fathers as one with him at the center, taking orders from a Christian-ish God who whispers in his ear.

It's a clever 90-degree pivot. Tea Partiers already esteem Beck; a recent study by Democracy Corps shows Beck with a 75 percent "warm" rating among self-described Tea Partiers, making him the most esteemed figure the study's authors tested among those surveyed. Having already won their hearts, he is poised to win their souls, while also cleaving to his side a greater chunk of Christian evangelicals than had already found their remotes shifting from the Christian Broadcasting Network to Fox News.

The melding of religious predilections the Church of Beck represents may seem, at first glance, an unlikely draw for members of the Religious Right, not least because of Beck's Mormonism, which is deemed a terrible heresy among most Protestant Christians. And, as religion scholar Joanna Brooks has written, Beck's Founder-worship and tearful pleas are emblematic of his adopted faith.

But the Religious Right never was a theologically pure movement. It was, in fact, created by two paleo-Catholics and a Jew-turned-Christian-Reconstructionist (Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips), at a time when Catholicism was viewed as something quite as exotic and demonic as Mormonism may still seem today to evangelical Christians. It was this triumverate who essentially hired the segregationist Baptist minister, Rev. Jerry Falwell, to front their movement, named the Moral Majority.

Beck's reinvention into a more distinctly religious figure can be traced to a particular moment -- a moment that conferred on him a legitimacy among followers of the Religious Right because of his Mormon faith. It was the moment he took the stage at this year's commencement ceremony at Liberty University, which was founded by the late Jerry Falwell. At the moment that Beck was introduced to Liberty's Class of 2010 by Jerry Falwell, Jr., a new constituency opened unto him.

Though its leaders might be loathe to admit it, the Religious Right needs the Tea Party movement as much the Tea Party movement needs the precinct lists and campaign canvassers of the Religious Right. That's why, at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit next month, there will be significant crossover between the Tea Party movement and the Religious Right among such speakers as Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. and Amy Kremer of Tea Party Express. And hot on the heels of the aging Family Research Council is Ralph Reed's new and shiny Faith and Freedom Coalition, whose express purpose is to meld the two movements into an electoral juggernaut.

So, laugh, if you will, as Glenn Beck promises his followers that today, at the Lincoln Memorial -- as he attempts to subvert the message of Martin Luther King, they will "see the spirit of God unleashed, unlike you have probably ever seen it before, at least at a public function. You are going to see the power of God."

The force unleashed may not be that of God, but it will be a force, and one with a purpose. Resentment is powerful. It's the thing that Tea Partiers and followers of the Religious Right have in common: resentment of elites, resentment of the poor, resentment of any reminder that they enjoy any privilege at the expense of others by accident of birth. Through Beck, we are about to see resentment made holy.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.