by Kevin Healey
Last year, Keith Olbermann repeatedly compared Glenn Beck to Harold Hill, the instrument-toting con-man from “The Music Man.” The comparison seems even more apt after Beck's Restoring Honor rally; borrowing a bit of mojo from his prominent evangelical guests, he sounded more like a tent revivalist than a TV news personality. The next viral hit on YouTube just might be a mash-up of Beck's rally speech and Robert Preston's rendition of “Ya Got Trouble.”
In fact, Beck has described himself as an entertainer, even comparing himself to a “rodeo clown.” Financially speaking, though, Beck is no joke. Just this past year, Glenn Beck Inc. generated $32 million. As critics point out, Beck's multimedia empire is “branding and monetizing the face of Angry America at a rate that would make Sarah Palin blush.” That's saying something, considering Palin's six-figure speaking fees and her contracts with Fox News and Discovery Channel. Much like Beck, Palin has become a singular national industry.
Unlike the self-consciously manipulative Harold Hill, though, Beck and Palin are regarded by their loyal followers as unsurpassed in their sincerity. Even Alex Zaitchik, who wrote a scathing biography of Beck, suggests that his raw emotionalism “doesn't make him a charlatan. He believes almost all of what he says.” Much the same can be said of Palin.
In contrast to Jeremiah Wright, especially, Palin and Beck's rise to stardom shows that while voices of prophetic social critique are often demonized, leaders espousing a mixture of religious apocalypticism, American exceptionalism and free-market fundamentalism can achieve rapid success these days. As Omri Elisha recently suggested on this page, this peculiar fusion of theology and economic ideology demands far more scrutiny from journalists who wish to understand the extent and effect of Beck's (and Palin's) influence.
Like Palin, who dodged questions about her Pentecostal background, Beck has persuaded evangelicals like James Dobson and Richard Land to overlook his Mormon faith. But Beck's apocalyptic views trouble many Mormons, even as his Mormon faith troubles some evangelicals. Meanwhile Palin has ties the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) and “spiritual warfare”—movements that “have troubled even some Pentecostal Christians,” as Laurie Goodstein reports.
If these movements sound unfamiliar, Bruce Wilson suggests, it's because “much of the journalism on religion and politics to come out over the last decade has missed massive, global changes in Christianity that carry profound political implications.” Independent research groups are stepping up to the task. As Omri noted, Media Matters has done the work of connecting the dots between Beck and Newt Gingrich in support of initiatives like Pray and Act. Wilson's own Talk2Action links Pray and Act to NAR, and NAR to Palin. Many mainstream news articles—including Goodstein's cited above—rely on groups like Talk2Action.
Such research is important since, in the hands of stars like Beck and Palin, the fusion of apocalyptic theology and neoliberal economics assumes a mundane, consumerist guise: a magazine, a top-selling book, an entertaining cable show, a blog entry worthy of a Facebook wall post. To suggest an answer to Omri's question from Tuesday: these are the materials by which religious communities are becoming embedded in Beck's and Palin's webs of influence—the instruments through which ideology circulates. But as Harold Hill learned, people often don't care what sound an instrument makes, as long as they get some credit for playing along. Rather than a single gumshoe reporter, it may take networks of diligent researchers to figure out just where this band is marching.
Kevin Healey is a Ph.D. candidate in the Institute of Communications Research at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research on media and religion appears in Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies, and Symbolic Interaction. This fall Kevin will be defending his dissertation, which is titled “The Spirit of Networks: New Media and the Changing Role of Religion in American Public Life.”