The day after last week’s presidential debates, conservatives across the nation were celebrating that Mitt Romney had been deemed the winner by the majority of viewers and pundits. I’m sure no one was more pleased than my dad, who is an ardent conservative, a Fox News viewer and a Glenn Beck follower. That morning my dad showed me a snippet of Beck’s radio show, in which he exulted that his prayers had been answered. Beck had prayed that the scales would be removed from people’s eyes to see clearly that Mitt Romney is the better man. Beck then suggested that Obama’s sour looks during the debate may have been caused by Jesus punching him in the face.
Next up was the funny part; Beck said it would be wrong to boast and celebrate at another’s expense . . . but they were going to do it anyway! His screaming/singing sidekick belted out “Mitt Romney kicked Obama’s ass!” to the accompaniment of a heavy metal band. Beck stopped him, gave a mini-sermon about how it’s wrong to boast, and then again said they were going to do it anyway. The singing/screaming resumed.
It was funny—and inappropriate. The Mormon inside me wanted to run for cover. Jesus punching Obama in the face? And did he really, just a few seconds later, use the a-word? My dad, despite being a loyal fan, agreed it was “a little weird.”
My dad says Beck has more paid subscriptions to his website than CNN has viewers. I’m too lazy to confirm those numbers, so I’ll simply agree that Beck’s an influential guy. He has a large and faithful following. What I am curious about is how many of those followers are members of our church. My dad’s a fan, and I can think of three other Mormons who have mentioned to me that they like Beck. I can think of more who have mentioned to me they don’t like Beck. I hypothesize if members of our church were surveyed about this, the majority would say they are not Beck fans. I make this hypothesis because Beck’s style is highly un-Mormon, maybe because he was not raised in the Church but joined as an adult in 1999, well after his public persona was developed.
I bet if Beck was an ethnic Mormon, like Romney and me, he would not be over-the-top and incendiary. We Mormons are staid people. Our church services are boring by design. We have no paid ministers, so lay members who have no particular talent for entertaining give straightforward “talks.” An occasional joke is okay, so long as it’s simple and kind. In between these mini-sermons, we sing hymns accompanied by an organ. Sometimes we hear a musical number performed by singers or instrumentalists, also lay members of the congregation, who might play a flute or string instrument. Rock bands can make it into our gyms for a ward party on a Friday or Saturday, but they are never allowed into our chapels or Sunday meetings. In fact, the Church’s Handbook—a guidebook that explains to our lay ministers how to run the church—says “Instruments with a prominent or less worshipful sound, such as most brass and percussion, are not appropriate for sacrament meeting.”
One might guess that our worship habits are rooted in Puritan ancestry, but they’re more deliberate than that. I’m not sure how much Puritan ancestry American Mormons have, anyway, since many of the early Mormons (including most of my ancestors) came to Utah directly from Europe without ever settling on the Eastern seaboard. Even when the Church was young, and Puritan values were still strong in many parts of the U.S., Mormons were exceptionally devoted to music and dancing. We have nothing against the performing arts, rock, rap or jazz. We just don’t think rock music is the right way to approach God. Entertainment is one thing; worship is another.
We also like to keep religion separate from politics, adhering to a strict code of political neutrality. Talking politics in church meetings is a big no-no (though now and then someone can’t help himself—I’ve heard Romney’s name mentioned three or four times in the last year). Each election season we hear the policy repeated by our local leaders when they read a letter from the Church president telling us we should become informed and vote, and also that the Church does not endorse parties, platforms or candidates. The Church has said in official statements that principles in accordance with the gospel are found in the platforms of all major parties.
According to a Gallup poll conducted last summer, 70% of Mormons lean Republican. But that leaves 30% who don’t lean Republican, a fact underscored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is a Democrat and a faithful Mormon. Like Beck, Reid joined the Church as an adult. If Romney is elected president and Reid retains his position, we may have a lot of Mormon influence in Washington—but divided between two parties.
Mormon commentator Joanna Brooks, who is quoted in a Wikipedia article on Beck, claims that Beck’s anti-communism, connect-the-dots theorizing, and overt sentimentality are rooted in his Mormonism. I find her assessment odd. Mormons are not cynical conspiracy theorists. Sure, some Mormons may be paranoid, and from her memoirs it seems her parents fit that description, but the majority of us are not. In fact, I believe we’re counter-cultural in our non-cynicism. We believe in old-fashioned civic virtues, in being courteous, in voting, running for office, serving in the military, obeying the law and honoring elected officials even if we don’t agree with them.
Brooks’ idea of men crying as a sign of male power is also absurd to me. Women cry from behind the pulpit more than men do. Occasionally an 80-something-old prophet sniffles when he talks about his deceased wife, and I’ve seen apostles get a little choked up in talking about their faith. But Mormon leaders, both local and worldwide, don’t openly cry, and they couldn’t be farther from showmen. As my mom says, “We’re the NPR among the churches.” We are subdued, polite and reasonable in our communication.
As one of our apostles recently explained, civility and seriousness should be the norm in our lives. In describing how to increase one’s communion with the Holy Ghost–in other words, to draw close to God–he said, “Another principle is to be cautious with humor. Loud, inappropriate laughter will offend the Spirit. A good sense of humor helps revelation; loud laughter does not. . . . Another enemy to revelation comes from exaggeration or loudness in what is stated. Careful, quiet speech will favor the receipt of revelation.”
If you are interested in seeing just how boring we really are, now is an opportune time. Last weekend we had our semi-annual General Conference, which consists of five two-hour meetings broadcast from Salt Lake City into 93 languages. Members and non-members alike can watch these proceedings on the Internet. While our usual Sunday meetings are more intimate and less polished, General Conference is our cultural standard. The tone of these meetings is the ideal we strive for in our weekly local meetings and even in our personal lives. It’s a tone entirely at odds with Glenn Beck TV.