Mormons have mixed views of Beck's rise

The Washington Post/September 3, 2010

Like conservative commentator Glenn Beck, Stephen Owens is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His in-laws traveled from Utah to Washington last weekend to join Beck's rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

Owens, however, said he has always "kind of rolled my eyes" at Beck's views.

And when the Salt Lake City lawyer read that Beck publicly questioned President Obama's "version of Christianity" the day after the rally, he was so angry that he wrote a letter to the local newspaper.

"I think it's arrogant of anyone to say whether someone is a Christian or not," said Owens, a 42-year-old Democrat. "My view of that is, if someone says, 'I follow the teachings of Jesus Christ,' then they're Christian, and who am I to say, 'No, you're not,' let alone [to] the president of our country? I was offended at that."

Owens's comments reflect the mixed opinions that members of the Mormon Church have of Beck's higher profile. Some see his rise as a sign of Mormonism going mainstream, while others worry that he is a divisive figure who does not represent Mormon values.

Michael Otterson, managing director of public affairs for the church, said that opinion of Beck is just as divided among Mormons as it is elsewhere.

"Views on Glenn Beck would be right across the spectrum," he said. "It depends on where individual Latter-day Saints are. Some would embrace him completely and others would no doubt be at odds."

Otterson also noted that there are more than 6 million Mormons in the United States and that prominent Mormons in the political arena run the ideological gamut - from Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R).

"It really underscores that members of the church are free to have their separate political views and express them whatever way they like," Otterson said, adding that Beck "would be the very first person to say that he does not speak for the church."

Philip Barlow, the Arrington chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, said that Beck is "something of a polarizing figure" in the Mormon community.

Barlow noted that Beck's statement that the Constitution is an "inspired document," his calls for limited government and his emphasis on not exiling God from the public sphere "have considerable sympathy in Mormonism."

But he added that Beck's claim that social justice is "a code word for Nazism and fascism," as well as his some of his more inflammatory remarks about his political adversaries, have turned off some members of the church.

"One wouldn't describe Glenn Beck as always being civil in his descriptions of his opponents," Barlow said, noting that the Mormon Church recently issued a statement calling for "civil discourse" on immigration.

Mormons have faced considerable obstacles when it comes to politics and perceptions among the American public. A Time magazine poll released last week showed that 29 percent of Americans hold unfavorable views of Mormons, compared with 43 percent who had unfavorable views of Muslims, 17 percent who felt unfavorably toward Catholics and 13 percent who viewed Jews unfavorably.

During Romney's 2008 presidential bid, some viewed his Mormon faith as a liability. A Pew survey at the time showed that 25 percent of Americans - including 36 percent of evangelical Republicans - expressed reservations about voting for a Mormon for president.

And while Mormons consider themselves Christians, key tenets of the Mormon Church are disputed by mainstream Christian denominations - a disparity that critics say adds to the irony of Beck questioning another person's Christian faith.

The Mormon Church recently began an advertising campaign in nine markets nationwide featuring 30-second TV spots in which members of the church talk about their lives in an attempt to dispel myths.

There are more than a dozen Mormon members of Congress from across the political spectrum, from Reid on the left to Sens. Orrin G. Hatch and Robert F. Bennett - both Republicans from Utah - on the right. But Beck, whose Washington rally last weekend drew upward of 87,000 people, may be the highest-profile Mormon on the national stage.

In public appearances and on his Fox News show, he has made religion a central part of his message, although he rarely refers specifically to his Mormon faith.(One such mention came in the "Fox News Sunday" appearance last week during which he took aim at Obama's religious beliefs.)

Barlow also said it is possible that as Beck's profile rises, so, too, will the views that Mormonism is synonymous with Beck's brand of conservatism.

As Barlow put it, "there might be a few maverick Harry Reids out there," but ultimately moderates and those on the left "are going to be seeing Mormonism running somewhere between Mitt Romney and Glenn Beck."

Owens expressed concern that some may come to see Beck as representing the views of most Mormons.

"I know he doesn't speak for the Mormon Church. And yet everyone seems to know he's LDS," Owens said. "And when he's so outspoken religiously, that bothers me, because I'm worried people in the public will mesh the two - Mormonism and him as a political commentator."

Owens said that should Romney run for president in 2012, Beck could prove to be more of a liability.

"If I were Mitt Romney, I would think that Glenn Beck would be hurting my cause, because presidential candidates want to be liked, and he's so divisive," Owens said.

He added: "I wouldn't want to be associated with someone who's such a controversial figure."

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