Beck Loses the Fox Portal into America’s Living Rooms

Editors’ note: As Joanna bids adieu to Glenn, it’s worth revisiting her seminal essay, “How Mormonism Built Glenn Beck.”

I’ll never forget the day I saw the beginning of the end of Glenn Beck.

It was March 2010. I had blogged about Beck and Mormonism, and a predictable stream of vitriol from Beck loyalists was pouring into my inbox. But then came the email that changed the way I saw Beck and his movement.

An older Mormon man in Utah wrote to confess that as a Beck fan he had been utterly consumed by Beck’s trademark rancor. But it wore him out. And to recover his senses, the man continued, he had abandoned the Beck program entirely and taken refuge in the quiet stillness of his local Mormon temple.

That’s when I realized that what appeared to be the runaway popularity of the Beck media empire would come to an end.

After all, Glenn Beck was getting paid—handsomely—to weep, wail, and gnash his teeth every day for Fox television cameras.

But it was a lot to ask of regular people to tune in and maintain that level of outrage day after day, week after week, with little to show for it but a Glenn Beck-endorsed souvenir poster of the US Constitution with a blank where they could pretend to become the hallowed document’s fortieth signer.

And it got even worse for Beck fans last spring and summer when in a desperate quest for content Beck ventured into the world of religion, picking on Jim Wallis, calling for a boycott of “social justice” churches, mangling black and liberation theology, casting aspersions on the authenticity of Barack Obama’s professed faith, and descending finally into an incomprehensible chalkboard tangle about magic stones, Native Americans, and the Hebrew language.

At the Restoring Honor rally in August, Beck tried to confirm his new incarnation as an ecumenopolitical televangelist, going so far as to summon up a “Black Robed Regiment” of publicity-loving conservative clergyfolk to back him.

But even as he pilfered and parroted American religious discourse, Beck missed out on the major reason people turn to religion in the first place: not just for rancor and righteous outrage, but for comfort; not just for doomsaying prognostication, but for the hope of a better world.

Still, even as his market share began to drop, Beck plunged onward with religious-tinged (and anti-Semitic) rants against George Soros, the fabled Twelfth Imam, and even Reform Jews (who he compared to radical Islamists). Local networks complained that Beck was hard to follow, that viewers were having an ever more difficult time making sense of his chalky webs of doomsaying. More than a million of Beck’s viewers abandoned him between January 2010 and January 2011. Major advertiser followed.

Now, it has been announced that Beck will lose his Fox television show by the end of 2011.

It would be foolish to think that a media figure as ambitious as Beck will go quietly. But the end of his regular gig on the Fox network means that Beck’s trademark brand of conspiracy-mongering will lose a portal into millions of American households.

Today, I’m thinking fondly about that former Beck fan in Utah and his very personal decision to abandon the faux gospel of Glenn Beck for something more sustaining.