I don’t mean to offend Ms. Hilton, so I apologize if the use of her name and related status in society and popular culture is a bit snarky. However, upon recent reflection bolstered by this week’s New York Times Magazine cover story, “Being Glenn Beck,” I feel that this kind of parallel is simply fitting. What do I mean by that? Put bluntly, Glen Beck has captured the attention of millions of people, not with brilliance deserving the awarding of a Nobel or Pulitzer prize nor with the humanitarian leadership that echos the compassion and justice of a Mother Teresa or Dorothy Day – no, Beck has launched himself (rather successfully) with vacuous entertainment and empty-minded, divisive rhetoric. He has done with politics what Hilton has done with fashion and sex.
The comparison is not nearly as absurd as one might first believe. Both Beck and Hilton hold high school diplomas as the highest level of education (technically: Hilton holds a GED). Hilton’s line of work (if it can be called work) does not seem to require any education, so I suppose she’s off the hook. Beck, however, is posing as a television and radio “journalist,” a field that requires undergraduate and sometimes postgraduate education. On his programs he often seeks to “teach,” drawing on props like chalkboards to illustrate his “pedagogical flavor.” But, upon reflection, would you trust a man who has not taken a single college political science, history or economics course (according to the NYTM, he took one college course in “Early Christology” before dropping out) to educate you and your fellow citizens about United States Politics, American History and Economic Theory? I didn’t think so. I will no doubt be classified as an ‘elitist’ or an ‘ivory-tower dweller’ or labeled with some other neologism of a pejorative hue for my emphasis on the importance and defense of education. It is indeed an area that I have committed a good part of my life and energy to and something that strikes me as an issue worthy of real attention, not just the latest trend of anti-intellectual education-bashing.
Both Beck and Hilton thrive on the public’s fascination with celebrity. Having made no measurable contribution to society, both figures of popular interest could even be accused of detracting from matters of timely concern and seriousness. Both celebrities are performers. One performs on the runways and posh clubs of the world, drawing attention from paparozzi, the other is a rabble rouser on television and radio.
The cover story profile on Beck is indeed a page-turner. It is enlightening for the breadth of its coverage of the Beck phenomenon. What is most startling to me as a Franciscan friar (therefore, a public religious leader) and a young theologian teaching at a liberal arts college (therefore, something of an ‘authority’ on such subjects) is the shamelessly overt religious tone of Beck’s discourse and that of his admirers. One of the most troubling quotes in the article is found on page 37, where the author writes:
“He has a spiritual connection to us; you can hear his heart speaking,” Susan Trevethan, a psychiatric nurse from Milford, Conn., told me at the “Restoring Honor” rally. “I believe he has been divinely guided to be here in this place,” she said. “He is doing the research. He is teaching us.”
What? “Divinely guided?” “Research” and “Teaching?” Unfortunately, this does not appear to be an exception among the adherents of ‘Beck-mania.’ It seems that many people — most of which I would assume are caught unawares of his Mormon faith, because many Evangelical Christians are NOT very tolerant of Mormons — see in Beck some sort of religio-political leader. That some folks even see him as “divinely guided” strikes me as very disconcerting.
Take for example the divisiveness of his message. From a theological perspective, I have to ask: What sort of God would guide a someone to a cable news network to preach against helping the least among us, intolerance of others, racial discrimination and threaten, even if only in jest, the physical safety of political and social leaders? Where do these seeming Christian followers of Beck find this type of discourse or instruction in Scripture? Perhaps the most egregious theological transgression to be promulgated from the Beck cathedra is his anti-Social Justice rhetoric. Whereas Jesus preached justice and peace, calling on the rich to give up everything they owned to enter the Kingdom of God, saying the first will be last and the last will be first and castigating the would-be goats for their lack of service and overlooking the least among us, Beck often times preaches the contrast, supporting flagrant and selfish capitalism, while promoting hostility toward the most marginalized in our world (take your pick: the poor, the unhealthy, the racial minorities, the stranger and alien, the homosexual, and so on).
WWGBD is definitely not the same as WWJD.
But, perhaps I’m not being fair. Beck does like to fall back on the fact that he simply “raises questions.” What’s wrong with that? The article continues:
President Obama is not a Muslim, Beck has said, correctly. But Beck can’t help wondering aloud on his show: “He needlessly throws his hat into the ring to defend the ground-zero mosque. He hosts Ramadan dinners, which a president can do. But then you just add all of this stuff up — his wife goes against the advice of the advisers, jets to Spain for vacation. What does she do there? She hits up the Alhambra palace mosque. Fine, it’s a tourist attraction. But is there anything more to this? Are they sending messages? I don’t know. I don’t know.”
I find this simply appalling. One wonders why there is so much hostility and division in this country. I can’t help but think that it’s partly the fault of this sort of vapid, yet dangerous, trash being tossed around. In this respect, Beck remains nothing more than a dangerous showman who, like Paris Hilton, garners far more attention than he should, but unlike the hotel heiress, does so at the expense of civility and intelligence of the political, religious and cultural arenas.