Beck wants to lead, but will evangelicals follow?

September 2, 2010

WASHINGTON (RNS) Southern Baptist executive Richard Land was pleased at
how religious Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally turned out to be.

Bishop Harry Jackson, a black evangelical leader, was pleasantly
surprised that the Fox News talk show host said things "some of my close
friends could have written."

And Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. was among the
faith leaders to enlist in Beck's new "Black Robe Regiment."

In the wake of the conservative commentator's rally on the National
Mall last weekend (Aug. 28), some evangelical leaders say he sounded all
the right religious notes.

But others say Beck's Mormon faith clouds the message.

"Glenn Beck's Mormon faith is irrelevant," said Falwell. "People of
all faiths, all races and all creeds spoke and attended the event.
Nobody was there to endorse anyone else's faith but we were all there to
honor our armed forces and to call the people of America to restore
honor."

But other conservative Christians say Beck's leadership at an event
attended by evangelicals and other conservatives was nothing short of
scandalous.

"The answer to this scandal ... includes local churches that preach
the gospel of Jesus Christ, and disciple their congregations to know the
difference between the kingdom of God and the latest political whim,"
Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist
Theological Seminary, wrote on his blog the day after the rally.

"It's sad to see so many Christians confusing Mormon politics or
American nationalism with the gospel of Jesus Christ."

At the rally, Beck paced before the Lincoln Memorial as he described
the "240 men and women," from a range of faiths who had joined his
regiment.

"We can disagree on politics," Beck said. "These men and women here
don't agree on fundamentals. They don't agree on everything that every
church teaches. What they do agree on is God is the answer."

There is no doubt that Beck has a following. Gallup has ranked him
as the fourth most admired man -- just ahead of Pope Benedict XVI -- and
millions tune in to his daily broadcasts.

But, as his religious rhetoric attests, Beck has gone fishing for a
new audience recently.

Weeks before the rally, he gathered about 20 prominent religious
leaders for a dinner at which he said God was leading him to talk about
revival in America, Land said. The night before the rally, he held a
"Divine Destiny" event that promised to leave participants with a
"strong belief that faith can play an essential role in reuniting the
country."

That kind of language has some evangelicals upset.

"I believe that Beck used his conservative veneer and doublespeak to
co-opt leaders of the religious right," wrote Brannon Howse, founder of
Worldview Weekend, which sponsors Christian worldview conferences.

Others, such as Lou Engle, founder of The Call rallies across the
country, said Beck will get qualified support.

"I think evangelicals will see him as a moral voice, not necessarily
a spiritual voice," he said.

Experts say Beck's ability to reach evangelicals will depend on
whether he speaks a broad message or delves more narrowly into his
Mormon beliefs.

"Most evangelicals are friendly toward the idea of American civil
religion and I think Beck's call sort of fit into that stream of
history," said Stan Guthrie, editor at large for Christianity Today. "I
think that as long as he doesn't get too specific about his Mormon faith
... many people will be willing to get on board."

Added evangelical public relations executive Mark DeMoss, who
advised Mormon Mitt Romney's presidential campaign: "If he were
mobilizing some sort of theological movement, I think most evangelicals
would not get behind it but I don't sense that that's what he's doing."

In 2007, more than a third of Republican white evangelical
Protestants said they would be reluctant to vote for a Mormon president,
and 39 percent of white evangelical Protestants viewed Mormons
unfavorably, according to a poll conducted by the nonpartisan Pew
Research Center.

John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of
Akron, said doctrinal differences between evangelicals and Mormons have
historically made it difficult for them to form alliances.

Some prominent evangelicals have distanced themselves in the past
from Beck because of his Mormonism. In 2008, Focus on the Family founder
James Dobson abruptly pulled an interview with Beck after viewers voiced
concern about "theological compromise."

Green said much of the squeamishness is due to the additional sacred
scripture and tenets that Mormons revere along with the Bible.

But despite those differences, he said there has been a growing
sense of pragmatism among religious leaders who have worked together.
For example, evangelical leaders defended the Mormon Church when gay
activists criticized it during the contentious debate over gay marriage
in California.

Randall Balmer, professor of religious history at Barnard College,
said Beck may be showing Romney a "better way to the heart of
evangelicals" by being more forthright about his Mormon faith. He even
speculated that perhaps Beck is a "stalking horse for Mitt Romney in
2012."

Whether or not Beck has such political aspirations, Balmer said his
efforts to draw evangelical attention could end up creating exactly what
Falwell's father envisioned -- a powerful coalition of politically
conservative evangelicals, Catholics and Mormons.

"If Beck truly emerges as a leader for that movement, he will have
fulfilled Jerry Falwell's dream," said Balmer. "I think Beck is working
awfully hard to ingratiate himself to that population."