Back in 2004, evangelical educator Richard Mouw brought a message of friendship and reconciliation to Mormon America, speaking to a packed house at the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Apologizing for the way conservative Protestants had treated Mormons, Mouw said, “We evangelicals have sinned against you.”
Six years later, a very different speaker will cross over in the other direction. On May 15, Mormon broadcaster Glenn Beck will deliver the commencement address at Liberty University, the Virginia school founded by the late Jerry Falwell.
Earlier this year, we noted that Beck has gained a following among conservative Protestants. Since then, the FOX News personality has spoken more openly about matters of faith. In March of 2010, Beck urged listeners to leave churches that talk about social and economic justice, much to the dismay of progressives. Last week he declared that God had given him a plan.
In a press release from Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr. called Beck “one of the few courageous voices in the national media standing up for the principles upon which this nation was founded.”
If anything unites Beck with evangelicalism’s right flank, it is a focus on the piety of the Founding Fathers.
While evangelical historians Mark Noll and George Marsden have critiqued the notion of “Christian America,” amateur experts like David Barton have highlighted the “Godly foundation of our country.” At the center of the recent Texas textbook controversy, Barton is also a favorite of Liberty and Beck.
In March and April, Barton headlined Beck’s “American Revival” rallies, exploring “the importance of faith as a foundation on which this country was built.” In 2008 and 2009, Barton spoke at Liberty’s Constitution Week, where he was hailed as a “constitutional scholar.”
Despite their common interpretation of America’s sacred origins, there are limits to the rapprochement between Beck and conservative Protestants.
Already, Liberty’s decision has sparked a vigorous debate about the fine points of Mormon theology on Christianity Today‘s Politics Blog.
Less obvious are disagreements about the theological meaning of America. In “How Mormonism Built Glenn Beck,” Joanna Brooks argues that the broadcaster’s “Founding Father worship” is rooted in distinctively LDS beliefs. As a case in point, Brooks mentions Mormon Church President Wilford Woodruff’s declaration that “George Washington and the signers of the Declaration of Independence appeared to him in the Mormon Temple in St. George, Utah in 1877, and requested that he perform Mormon temple ordinances on their behalf.” Commemorated in Harold Hopkinson’s 1987 painting (above), Woodruff’s encounter is consistent with Mormonism’s sacred interpretation of American history.
This sacred history was affirmed by Mormon President Ezra Taft Benson in “Our Divine Constitution.” Addressing a general conference of the Church, Benson argued that “the Constitution will be saved as prophesied by Joseph Smith,” adding that it “will be saved by enlightened members of this Church.”
Despite obvious reverence for the Founding Founders, this history is not a part of Jerry Falwell’s America. Yet from the beginning, the Moral Majority took a big tent approach to the mobilization of religious conservatives, reaching out to Catholics, Mormons, and others outside the fundamentalist world. Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s invitation to Glenn Beck is consistent with this approach.