In September of 2001, in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, a radio talk show host working out of Tampa, Florida, was called by the president of Clear Channel radio. The host had been in talks with Clear Channel to take his show national, but now that the cultural climate had so suddenly changed, the date for the premiere was moved up to September 17th. The host felt untethered by the events of that week, scared, and didn’t know what to say in their aftermath, but he accepted the position. He even traveled to New York to broadcast out of the city that was so scarred by the attacks that had just occurred.
This was the national debut of Glenn Beck.
Beck has always been a polarizing figure, both among liberals and conservatives. His style has led to his describing himself as a “rodeo clown,” emphasizing not just sticking to the talking points but also indulging in humor and satire. He had long referred to his formula as a “blend of entertainment and enlightenment,” something he leaned into hard as he made his national debut.
What Beck is most remembered for now, after first gaining and then losing national prominence as a television commentator, is the fact that during his tenure on Fox News, he helped create the particular blending of political and religious thought amongst conservatives that we take for granted now. Lasting from 2008–2011, his program often delved into topics that spanned the purely political to the purely religious, but also often mingled the two. Conservative Republicans and religious Evangelicals had always had an alliance, beginning with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority movement in the late 1970s. But with Beck emphasizing the supposed Christian viewpoints of the Founding Fathers and other such distortions of history, and promoting books that taught this same viewpoint, Fox found a foothold with an audience that wanted more of this treatment of the news of the day.
Dianna E. Anderson speculated as much on Twitter:
Beck didn’t begin his life as a conservative Evangelical, though. He had been raised Catholic, though there’s no evidence his family was very devout, and his post-secondary education consisted of one theological course at Yale, which circumstances forced him to drop. However, after becoming involved with Alcoholics Anonymous and giving up drinking and drugs, he studied various writings independently, including writings by Alan Dershowitz, Pope John Paul II, Adolf Hitler, Billy Graham, Carl Sagan, and Friedrich Nietzsche, a selection he later jokingly called “the library of a serial killer.” He then converted to Mormonism in 1999. This religion became the bedrock of his life, though he sometimes talked about being a very poor Mormon because of his biting sense of humor and tendency to curse or to break out into a screaming tirade on the air with callers he deemed idiots.
Beck was initially a strong supporter of George W. Bush. He believed in the necessity of invading Iraq in 2003, and even held a number of pro-war rallies in the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Known as the Rallies For America, it packed out venues and drew large crowds. But something that became apparent about Beck afterwards, especially during Bush’s second term from 2005–2009, was that he wasn’t the typical conservative talking head. He was mercilessly critical of Bush in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, centering his arguments not on party, but on his principles. His criticisms were largely in the financial sector; he opposed the bailouts of the banks and other decisions made by the president at the time that were in opposition to the libertarian view that the markets should be allowed to regulate themselves.
It was his principled stand for his conservative libertarian views that led to his landing a television program on CNN’s Headline News network, a decision that was announced in January of 2006. He was hired alongside two other conservative commentators, which seems to have been a move to court conservative viewers. Although the time slot he was given was considered a weak spot, he did as he had done when he first gained a national radio program and increased viewership by leaps and bounds.
Beck immediately made a name for himself in this position, shooting from the hip during interviews, insulting Democratic politicians, and bringing his style to the awareness of more and more people nationwide. It was clear early on that he didn’t intend to temper himself, nor did he intend to hide his religious beliefs regarding the Christian doctrine of the end times. In his first month he made headlines by implying in an interview with the first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison, that he might be working “with our enemies,” and by hosting an episode of his program dedicated to the Evangelical concept of the “End of Days.” His sense of humor, meanwhile, landed him on Keith Olbermann’s Worst Person In The World segment a number of times.
In October of 2008, not long before the election of Barack Obama, it was announced that Beck was leaving Headline News for Fox News in the coming spring. The sticking point in the failed negotiations at Headline News seemed to be the fact that the 9pm time slot was no longer going to be used to repeat his program, though that piece of speculation was never confirmed. But it was also most likely the lure of an even larger, more dedicated conservative base that drew him to Fox.
Because of his Mormonism, Beck at first struggled during his tenure in the television spotlight to be accepted by evangelicals as a legitimate Christian voice. Beck’s 2008 interview on the Christian radio program Focus on the Family was later pulled from their website due to complaints by their listeners that neither Focus nor Beck had ever mentioned in the course of the interview that Beck was a Mormon. But in May of 2010, Beck appeared as the keynote speaker at Liberty University’s commencement, receiving an honorary degree from the conservative school. Beck warned conservatives that the term “social justice” was a liberal code word and stated that they should leave any churches that taught social justice from the pulpit, causing a furor. But this same year, Jerry Falwell Jr. appeared on his program to state that conservatives of all stripes should band together for political gain and sort out religious questions later.
Glenn’s sense of humor sometimes didn’t translate well to television, such as the time he propositioned a guest on the air; the many outlets that reported this seemed to have no idea this was not meant to be taken seriously, but as a long-time listener of his radio program, I recognized it as a joke. Jokes such as this one that skirted (or outright ignored) standards of propriety were common on his radio program, but now that he was on television he found himself unable to get away with them without being criticized. Nevertheless, his transition to Fox also heralded a new phase in his media empire as he turned ever more to religion and Christian ecumenicism. He believed the election of Barack Obama signaled that the nation had turned away from God and was about to help usher in the end times. He brought evangelical pastor John Hagee onto his program time and time again to discuss things like end-time prophecy and whether or not Obama was the Antichrist. Though this rhetoric began when he was on Headline News, it continued as his audience grew on Fox, and culminated in his support of the original Tea Party rallies on April 15, 2009. Though some people erroneously remember him as the originator of the movement, his support of the grassroots movement actually came after his attempt to start a movement called We Surround Them, or the 9/12 Project, that was meant to empower religious conservatives to remember “who we were on the day after the 9/11 attacks.”
Beck’s own Restoring Honor rally took place on August 28, 2010. This rally was set on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, but instead of calling for racial harmony, it called for people to turn to religion and to prayer to save the country. Many of the people who attended the latter rally were supporters of the Tea Party movement, though the two movements are ostensibly unrelated.
Beck’s message was one that resonated with evangelical Christians, despite the fact that he was a Mormon and not an evangelical. Although Jerry Falwell began the movement that drew religious conservatives into political life back in the late 1970s, Beck helped make it more plausible and more palatable for them to mention their beliefs in public. By contrast, in the 1960s and early 1970s, conservatives such as William F. Buckley stuck to a political playbook that called for not allowing the more fringe parts of the conservative movement to have the limelight. But as the movement of people who were willing to decry Obama as a communist grew, so did Beck’s ratings. Beck himself did not believe Obama was the Antichrist, but he did believe Obama was a communist, which to a libertarian like him is nearly as bad. Given events such as Van Jones’ resignation from his position as an adviser to Obama, guilt by association became a lens that Beck brought to focus on other members of Obama’s government, as well as Obama himself.
In addition to his stance on communism, Beck’s position on immigration was one that resonated with conservative viewers. Republican voters are overwhelmingly white, and though Beck often said that his viewpoint on illegal immigration counted as much for Scandinavian or European immigrants as it did for Mexican or Arab immigrants, it was clear that his rhetoric targeted religious Muslims and impoverished Latinxs more than other groups. He stated there were no jobs “Americans just won’t do,” but that those jobs are stolen when illegal immigrants are hired to do them. When President Obama put forth a plan to fast-track illegal immigrants into legitimate paths to citizenship, Beck claimed Obama was attempting to fundamentally change the demographics of the country.
During the time he was on the air on Fox, Beck had come to be regarded more and more as an educator of the masses by those who watched. His recommendations of books such as W. Cleon Skousen’s The Five Thousand Year Leap were disseminated as must-reads by Tea Party chapters around the country. (W. Cleon Skousen was himself a Mormon.) Beck’s rhetoric that referred to Obama as a racist who hated white people and the country in danger of falling into socialism became more accepted among conservatives. Obama’s political position was influenced by his immigrant father, Beck taught, making Obama sympathetic to those that sought to undermine that which conservative Americans had come to hold dear.
During this time he’d also often had David Barton on his programs, the founder of Wallbuilders, whose version of history embraces a viewpoint that calls America’s founding fathers all strong Christians and believers of the Bible. Though Barton had his own program that ran on Christian radio stations, Barton’s beliefs about history were disseminated all the more by Beck, who called him “the most important man in America today.” He started featuring the Founding Fathers in special biographical segments every Friday to emphasize their political and religious views as those that Americans should aspire to emulate in the modern era. He even wrote an ‘updated’ version of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which sought to convince its readers that the modern American government was overreaching in the same way the British government had done in the 1700s. In addition to Barton, Beck often invited guests such as James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, and Charles Stanley, the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia. Both of these men also had long-running radio programs on conservative Christian radio.
The Tea Party movement rose in prominence and gained more influence as a voting bloc, and Beck’s support for the movement was key in helping it become more organized as it set its sights on the 2010 and 2012 elections. Many of them weren’t involved politically at all until the 2008 economic crash, and had begun listening to Beck in the aftermath of those events. Beck’s programs pointed them to various materials with a conservative libertarian viewpoint, such as the works of Ayn Rand. There was also strong support amongst the Tea Party for libertarian politicians such as Ron Paul, and a large number of people who had supported his bid for president in 2008 also joined the movement.The Tea Party’s foundations was in financial, not social, issues, but the fact that those who led the movement to prominence, including Beck, put such an emphasis on evangelical Christian thought, this led to a blending of the two.
In 2010, the first year the Tea Party was a force in the voting booth, conservative Christians in general were becoming more visibly political and more radically fundamentalist. By this time, the question of who would lead the conservative evangelical movement seemed to be in limbo, with long-time evangelist Billy Graham too old and frail to continue in the public spotlight. Where Billy Graham had tried to keep his faith and politics moderate, and had consulted presidents of both parties, his son, Franklin Graham, stood with the more fundamentalist side of the Christian establishment. His leadership of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the charity Samaritan’s Purse has been more in line with the views of conservative evangelical fundamentalist Christians, who believe that people should be aggressively sought for conversion. Although Billy Graham had warned against putting too much trust in any politician, Franklin Graham was willing to mire himself in politics, eventually lending his voice and support to Donald Trump and calling Trump “a defender of the faith.”
Beck left Fox News in June 2011. Most of the reason he left had to do with conflicts with Fox News head Roger Ailes, who was unhappy with Beck’s emphasis on religion and with his losing advertiser contracts due to his controversial statements. When Beck left Fox, he started his own television network, GBTV, which later became The Blaze. Though he continues to speak out on his beliefs, including opposing Donald Trump, he has less of a platform now. He’d also angered some religious conservatives with his support of gay civil unions, opposition of the death penalty, and other libertarian positions.
GBTV proved to be a poor competitor to Fox, which had grown much more politically conservative in its message during his tenure there. The station that had started out as a “fair and balanced” alternative to the mainstream news media, which its founders viewed as too liberal, had during this time moved rapidly to the right. A 2008 study by Pew Research Center showed that 60% of Fox viewers thought of themselves as conservative, but by 2013 a Gallup Poll showed that 94% of Fox’s viewers were Republican or leaned Republican. GBTV, meanwhile, was a subscription service, which could be accessed by using a Roku device, and was later added to the Dish Network. However, people who subscribed to his channel that first year would find the offerings slim, with a number of repeats being run throughout the day. Many of his viewers likely remained viewers of Fox News, with one analyst suggesting that by the end of the first year, Beck would likely have only converted 1% of his audience to viewership on his new network.
Meanwhile, the wheels Beck helped set in motion when he was on mainstream television continue to turn. The rhetoric of the 2012 election, in which Obama was elected for his second term, and decisions made by Obama in its aftermath, such as Obama’s decision to support gay marriage, led to fear among evangelicals. They believed that another Democrat winning the presidency would lead to an erosion of the values that Beck helped teach them had been in place since the founding of the country.
Although it’s obvious for many reasons that Donald Trump is a hypocrite in asserting himself to be a Christian, that fear led many evangelicals to vote for him when they went to the polls in 2016. They were seeking a strong personality who would defend them from the forces they saw as encroaching on their way of life or seeking to destroy it. This, more than anything else, explains why evangelicals went to the polls for Trump and still continue to support him to this day. Trump’s rallying cry of “Make America Great Again” strikes cleanly to the root of this matter; America’s evangelicals believe their way of life and beliefs are under attack by the Democratic party and that without Trump they would be in grave danger of losing this way of life. They see Trump as taking back and redeeming everything they perceived that they had lost under Obama.
And Trump stood for something that Beck had stated time and again was a key to securing the future of America as it stood: getting tough on immigration. Trump knew how to whip conservatives who feared immigrants would threaten their way of life up to a fever pitch and, most importantly, got them to go to the polls.
Roger Ailes, who sacked Beck from Fox News partly because of his religious commentary, left Fox News in July of 2016. He was no longer at the helm when Trump was elected, but he was in large part responsible for its turn toward the right.
Trump continues to benefit from Fox’s slanted reporting, and is commonly known to start his day by watching its morning program, Fox & Friends. By now, Fox knows what it has in the palm of its hand, and it often uses this position to tell the president what its demographic wants him to do.
The Blaze remains accessible on Dish Network and via other means, but Beck’s influence as a commentator and editorialist is much diminished compared to what it was in his television heyday. Beck stood against Donald Trump when it became clear Trump was going to win the Republican nomination, but unless a person was a subscriber to the Blaze or continued to listen to his radio program, his opinion was not heard. Despite this, his influence on the rhetoric on the right has been long-reaching and profound. His impact on the Republican party and conservative thought will continue to be felt for many years to come.