Correction to This Article
This article about the religious content of Fox News commentator Glenn Beck's message incorrectly attributed a statement to Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist, not Land, who said that conservative Christian leaders of the future are less likely to be clergy members because it's harder to be an overt partisan and retain tax-exempt status.

Beck's marriage of politics and religion raising questions

Glenn Beck
Glenn Beck
  Enlarge Photo    
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A few weeks before organizing a massive rally on the Mall that had the feel of a religious revival, Glenn Beck sought the blessing of some of the country's most prominent conservative Christian leaders.

The Fox talk show host wanted their support as he shifted from political commentary to a more spiritual message, he told the group of about 20.

This is where God is leading me, Beck declared, according to Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, who was there, along with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.

Land said most in the group found Beck's faith genuine and heartfelt, although not everyone agreed to embrace him publicly.

"We walked back to the hotel after and said, 'That was extraordinary,' " Land said of his conversation with Dobson after the dinner in Manhattan. "I've never heard a cultural figure of that popularity talking that overtly about his faith. He sounded like Billy Graham."

Two days after Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally drew a crowd that stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to the World War II Memorial, many Americans were still trying to figure out if the commentator had just seized the mantle of the religious right.

Conservative Christian talk radio was crackling with debate about Beck's Mormonism. Religious progressives were assailing his attacks on President Obama's Christianity. Scholars of religion and politics were analyzing Beck's evangelical-like talk of being saved from drug and alcohol addiction. Some pastor-bloggers were bemoaning what they consider the conflation of celebrity, politics and spirituality.

"Politically, everyone is with it, but theologically, when he says the country should turn back to God, the question is: Which God?" said Tom Tradup, vice president for news and talk at Salem Radio Network,which serves more than 2,000 stations, most of them Christian. "How much of this is turning to God? How much is religious revival and how much is a snake oil medicine show?"

In a matter of hours, Beck went from a hugely popular media figure - a 2009 Gallup poll listed him as the fourth most admired living man in the country - to a spiritual player, embracing a new and overtly religious rhetoric that made him sound like an evangelist.

Yet the Mormon convert seems an unlikely leader for conservative Christians, many of whom don't regard Mormonism as part of their faith.

Political anger

Even as the event was billed as nonpartisan, and attendees were told not to bring political signs, it was impossible to untangle the Fox News commentator from the political anger of the "tea party" movement and the bitter 2010 campaign season. GOP leader Sarah Palin was a guest speaker, and Beck was interviewed after the rally characterizing Obama's faith as being dominated by an "oppressor-victim" paradigm.

"People aren't recognizing his version of Christianity," Beck said on "Fox News Sunday."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company