A Plea for Civilty

This article, by Bill Russell, a professor from Graceland University (the Community of Christ college) is a reprint of the 21 July 2010 installment of his ‘Political Scene’ column in the Lamoni Chronicle.

In past columns I have added my voice to that of many others who are anxious for a return to a politics in America where civil discourse is commonplace rather than rare. One of those voices is from the Mormon Church website: “The Church views with concern the politics of fear and rhetorical extremism that render civil discussion impossible. . . . The Church hopes that our democratic system will facilitate kinder and more reasoned exchanges among fellow Americans than we are now seeing.”

At the church’s most recent General Conference, Mormon Apostle Quentin L. Cook said: “Many in the world are afraid and angry with one another. While we understand these feelings, we need to be civil in our discourse and respectful in our interactions. This is especially true when we disagree.  The Savior taught us to love even our enemies. The vast majority of our members heed this counsel. Yet there are some who feel that venting their personal anger or deeply held opinions is more important than conducting themselves as Jesus Christ lived and taught.”

It seems fairly clear to me that one person – and probably the main person — these communications were aimed at is Glenn Beck, himself an adult convert to Mormonism. A former alcoholic and cocaine addict, I think Beck’s conversion to the LDS Church made a lot of sense. The church’s strict teachings on alcohol and other drugs has probably helped Beck recover from these addictions.

A Mormon friend from California, Bob Rees, suggests in an article in the current issue of Sunstone magazine that Beck “has a propensity to polarize rather than unify, demonize rather than humanize, and sow discord rather than promote dialogue. . . President Obama is routinely described as a socialist, a fascist, a Maoist and a communist and his administration as something dark and seductively satanic.” Beck is perhaps the most divisive force in America today. I think only Rush Limbaugh could contend for that “honor.” In his television and radio shows, Beck continually expresses an irrational hostility toward President Obama and all other progressives in the political arena. Referring to the President, he has said “the enemy is in the house!” We have all seen signs at Tea Party events identifying Obama with Hitler, Marx, Lenin, Saddam Hussein, etc. These can be found on Beck’s blackboard.

Incredibly, Beck has said that the President “has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture.” You wonder if Beck has even bothered to look at the skin color of the Obama’s inner circle in the campaign and at the White House. I think his inner circle is too Caucasian.

When Beck is criticized he does not respond like an adult; rather he launches into scurrilous counter attacks, making up things that aren’t true.  But they serve his cause. This nice Christian man calls his critics “idiots,” “bastards,” “dirtbags,” “thugs,” and “pinheads,” making civil discourse impossible. He even said: “I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it.”

“Instead of reflecting the message of the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the more enlightened teachings of the Restoration, Beck has latched on to some of the worst ideas from the Mormon fringe to shape his political and social persona,” according to Bob Rees, a former bishop. The long-held Latter-day Saint principles of respect for civil authorities are not to be found in Beck’s discourse.

Beck claims that Obama and the progressives are destroying America and destroying our Constitution.  But if President Obama invited him to a “beer summit” (with Mormon punch, of course) like he did Professor Gates and the Boston police officer, Beck wouldn’t have the courage to discuss the Constitution with a former professor of Constitutional law at one of our top-half dozen law schools.  He doesn’t engage in dialogue, especially with someone who disagrees with him and is a whole lot smarter.

As I pointed out in my September 22, 2009 column, Beck has resurrected Cleon Skousen, a radical right wing Mormon who the church finally denounced more than thirty years ago for his irresponsible charges. Local church leaders were told not to use any of Skousen’s writings. They were an embarrassment. With Skousen as mentor, it is not surprising that Beck identifies with the John Birch Society, and his pronouncements have been a key to its recent resurgence. The John Birch Society is a group that claimed that President Eisenhower was a communist, along with almost anyone to the left of Barry Goldwater, it seemed.

Rees sees close parallels between Beck and Senator Joseph McCarthy, who carried out witch hunts in the 1950s until finally the Senate censured him for his irresponsible behavior.  But, as Rees says it, Beck has a “much more powerful media megaphone with which to sound his alarm.”

In McCarthy’s day, two Republican Senators took leading roles in censuring their fellow Republican colleague: Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and Arthur Watkins of Utah. But Watkins paid a price. McCarthy was popular in Utah and Watkins, a Mormon, was defeated in his next attempt to be re-elected.  Similarly, Bob Bennett, a solid conservative Senator from Utah, now completing his third term, was trounced in the recent Republican caucuses and was not even be on the ballot in the Republican primary. Beck beat the drums to defeat Bennett. His sin? Bennett worked with Democrats to hammer out compromises so the public’s business could be done.  He was also condemned as a “moderate” (which used to be a good word) but Bennett clearly is about as conservative as a Senator can get.  But for Beck’s kind of conservative, Bennett is a RINO (Republican in Name Only). Beck said, “I may vote for a mouse over Bob Bennett.”

Many older Mormons remember all too well embarrassing bits of the Mormon past.  Nineteenth century polygamy, twentieth century racism, and the close association some in the church had with Cleon Skousen and the John Birch Society come quickly to mind. They have hoped that these embarrassing segments of their history are a thing of the past, but Beck’s rhetoric has the danger of resurrecting the dark side. About one-tenth of American whites still believe in the doctrine of white supremacy, which most Americans believed fifty or sixty years ago.

Beck constantly condemns socialism and claims that Obama is trying to lead our nation into socialism.  You wonder if he realizes that hundreds of thousands of Mormons live in socialist countries, are doing just fine, and are as free as Americans, if not more so.

Beck really lost it the day he told his readers, with swastika in one hand and a hammer and sickle in the other, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice,’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can.” This offended virtually every Christian denomination in America, and it deeply offended many Mormons.  Economic and social justice are at the core of much of the biblical message and certainly the teachings of Jesus.

Bob Rees would like to see Glenn Beck conform more to the norms of Christianity, the Mormon Church, and civilized, democratic societies, but he isn’t hopeful.  When a person is making more than thirty million a year with his vitriol, if the church leaders told him he needed to be a better Christian, and made Beck chose between his church and his fantastic profits, I don’t think he would chose the church.

Rees believes that “Beck needs to be held accountable for the increasing racist rhetoric expressed by those on the far right.  As with McCarthy. . . , Beck’s incendiary campaign against the government will eventually implode, but before it does, a number of good people will be adversely affected, as will the LDS Church itself.”


19 comments on “A Plea for Civilty

  1. Margie Miller says:

    I had a woman call me and inquire about our church last week. She wanted to know if we believed in “individual salvation” or “corporate salvation”. I really did not know what she was talking about but she told me she watched Glen Beck every day and he told his audience to be careful of those who taught “corporate salvation”. I told her I thought salvation was an individual choice.

    Of course, I believe in salvation as connected to our choices in this life since I do not believe in salvation theology.

    Later I thought I believe in the kingdom as a corporate response to Jesus’ teachings so maybe I told her wrong.

    The woman seemed like a Glen beck type.

  2. Doug Gregory says:

    While I am no fan of Glenn Beck, I lean towards conservative political beliefs. I am one of those who believe that the politics of the current administration are hastening the economic decline of the country at its very roots. Echoing brother Veazey, I believe the demonizing name-calling we use (and that has ALWAYS been a part of our politics, for better or worse)is not in keeping with our calling as followers of Christ. Pres Lincoln was famously called a monkey by one of his detractors.

    What I find curious is that postings from the intellects within the CofC mostly denounce those on the political right. I’m not sure I have ever seen or read a posting denouncing those on the political left who use similar terms and the cover-up smear lables of “racism” and the like. Why is that? I know the writings of many of the “progressive” (does that make me regressive?) thinkers is just as offensive (remember the “funeral service” turned political rally of Sen Wellstone?). The politics of division and hate is unfortunately alive and well across our political spectrum.

    My guess is that while talk radio is dominated by those on the political right, most of the rest of media is dominated by the political left. So, the focus turns to denouncing those on the right (with some cause) while ignoring those on the left.

    I do not disagree with your conclusions, but would ask that your perspective be more inclusive. This is not just a disease of the right.

    • yes it is. Show me the left-equivalent and I’ll listen, but just saying there is an equivalence on the left does not do it.

      • Doug Gregory says:

        Go back and listen to the Wellstone memorial, and you will find all kinds of insults hurled at conservatives. The media is different, but the hate is just as strong. I don’t read left stuff any more than I listen to Beck, but I hear the quotes all of the time (I do, however, watch a bit of Fox news, which is where this stuff is often reported, as CNN would never do so)

  3. mark gibson says:

    Many of the CofChrist leaders split religious thinking into two groups: “mainstream” (liberal) or “fundamentalist” (conservative). Bill Russell once called conservative RLDS members “19th century thinking”, Geoffrey Spencer called them “ostriches with their heads in the sand”.Some use three groupings: fundamentalist, liberal, and humanist. When I questioned Wayne Ham about this, his response was that conservatism was too diverse to be an actual category. Yeah, right. A double standard does exist.

    Let’s see if Bill Russell denounces Ward Churchill.

    • Glenn Beck is paid tens of millions of dollars and has a radio show and a tv show that reaches millions of people. He is arguably the heart of a large and vocal political/anti-government movement and extremely public.

      Ward Churchill was a college professor who wrote a largely-ignored paper.

      What is the equivalence here? I’m sure Bill would not condone some of Mr. Churchill’s thoughts, but is it reasonable to suggest a double standard exists because he chooses to write about an extremely public and influential person rather than a nobody?

      It would be like saying you had a double standard if you complained about something the President did, but didn’t also complain about similar things my neighbor did.

  4. mark gibson says:


    To believe that there’s no extremism on the left validates what I wrote: Liberals are mainstream and everyone else are right-wing nuts.

    So Glenn Beck’s message reaches millions of people (your words). Why? He doesn’t pay people to watch or listen, neither does he rely on a government grant to subsidize his efforts. Are you prepared to insult the intelligence of his entire audience?

    And what happened to the Liberal credo of being open-minded and tolerant? These lyrics from the ’60s:

    But today there is no day or night
    Today there is no dark or light
    Today there is no black or white
    Only shades of gray

    I also don’t think Russell’s article was civil, since he tried to link Beck with McCarthy (a classic liberal tatic).

    How about it; who else thinks there’s no such thing as left-wing extremism?

    • Mark: I don’t believe there is no extremism on the left – I didn’t say that. To the contrary – I think Mr. Churchill is extreme in his beliefs. What I was responding to was your suggestion that Mr. Russell was unfair because he didn’t equally criticize extremism on the left. I think it’s more a reflection on the weakness of your point to say that the only example you can find of extremism on the left is one college professor to balance a huge media figure on the right.

      Perhaps you just missed my point.

      Doug: My point is pretty much the same for you. Mr. Russel is denouncing a conservative figure, because that conservative figure is hugely influential and public. You made the point that there is an equivalence on the left – but similarly to Mark, can only point to a group of private citizens at a private event. I just don’t see the similarity here. Is Mr. Russel supposed to equally condemn public media figures as well as private citizens? Can you not see a distinction here?

    • FireTag says:

      Professor Russell has been having trouble with “narrow-minded” people who do not share his view of the gospel for a very long time.

      “Because of my civil rights activities and writings, President W. Wallace Smith, my boss, regarded me as a Communist. This was confirmed to me at the time by my managing editor, Paul Wellington… Maurice Draper, Smith’s counselor at the time, also confirmed this in conversation with me about seventeen years later.

      “…I do appreciate the fact that W. Wallace Smith did not fire me from my editorial position at Herald House. Looking back, I appreciate the fact that he tolerated a great diversity of opinion among the headquarters staff. But I was dismayed at President Smith’s narrow view of the gospel.

      “During my first year on the faculty at Graceland, President Smith published an editorial in the Saint’s Herald. … I was disturbed at how limited and middle class his concerns were.” — William D. Russell, The Call to Christian Political Action, page 106 in Religion and Public Life (Theology Volume 14), Graceland Press.

      Is political action Christian only if taken on behalf of the left? Is leftist Christianity the only “true” Christianity? Isn’t the basis of civility the notion that your political opponents might actually have something worth hearing, instead of condeming it through second hand reports? I wonder if Professor Russell ever actually talked to W. Wallace about the basis of the latter’s concerns?

      I wonder how Professor Russell discerned that the very conservative Mormon leadership, not known for routinely sharing the opinion of the American left, was actually singling out Glenn Beck in a general statement about political extremism?

      • Doug Gregory says:

        Very interesting comment since we are speaking of civility.

        My mother grew up with Wally B at First Church in Portland while W. Wallace was the presiding elder there, and my dad roomed with him at Graceland. The only reason to share this is that they were very close during those years and lifelong friends, although I am quite certain that my dad’s very liberal theology was quite at odds with Wally B’s perspectives (mine too).

        In spite of these differences, they loved and respected each other. They chose not to let the things that could have divided them get in the way of the fellowship that united them.

        We tend to focus more on the things that divide us than on the things that create bonds between us, and that is sad. Perhaps this is why the greatest gift of all is love, and the bonds it creates.

  5. mark gibson says:

    Okay btc. Let’s compare Glenn Beck with a left-wing counterpart; Keith Olbermann.

    Both are described as “commentators”

    Beck is a High School grad; Olbermann has a B.S. fron Cornell.

    Beck went nationwide with his radio program in 2002. He got his own TV show in 2006, broadcast in the late afternoon.

    Olbermann has been involved in broadcasting since the 1980’s. He got his own show in 2003 which airs in prime-time.

    Beck rants against Barack Obama, Al Gore, George Soros, etc. etc.

    Olbermann rants against George W. Bush, John McCain, Sarah Palin, etc. etc.

    We can see that Olbermann has been on the scene a lot longer than Glenn Beck. The size of their respective audiences or their program’s ratings has no bearing on their political extremism, right or left.

  6. Doug Gregory says:

    There is extremism all around us in the world. We rant and rave about Beck but remain silent about Sudan and Myanmar and Venezuela and Iran where people are being killed and freedom quashed. Lets get some perspective here, folks.

    I miss the 60’s (kind of).

    • Doug – I’m not sure what your complaint is. If my soup is cold at a restaurant, are you suggesting I can’t complain about this because people are dying in Myanmar? You are on this board and commenting on this issue, but the rest of us doing the same thing lack perspective? What exactly is your complaint?

      • Doug Gregory says:

        No, BTC, I’m not, because my life has other activities in it as well. Political extremism rarely focuses on the real issues that need to be resolved in order to bring peace and justice to as many people as possible.

        I got off track above – my real complaint is in my initial response, that we need to address this issue in an even-handed way, lest we become aligned with the politics of an issue, rather than the kingdom perspective of an issue.

  7. Mark – I will concede that Olbermann is a left-wing extremist, as I conceded Churchill is an extremeist. I wasn’t making a point that there was no left-wing extremism. So I’m not sure what point you are trying to refut. If it is about influence, which is what I was referring to, then ratings are absolutley relevant.

    But you say that ratings are irrelevant to “political” extremism – and I agree. But I didn’t see any complaint by Mr. Russell about Becks position on issues. Rather he was concerned with Beck’s “rhetorical” extremism – calling Obama a racist, facist, maoist, communist, socialis, etc. His final points was to condemn Beck for racist and incendiary rhetoric.

    To be honest, I don’t watch Olbermann very much as I am not a huge fan of political gamesmanship, which seems to be the flavor of choice of cable news. If you have examples of increasing levels of racist and incendiary rhetoric on the left that is being spurred on by Olbermann (which would be the left-equivalent complaint that I hear Mr. Russell making), I’m happy to hear it.

    Personally, I don’t see very many examples of left-wing extremist rhetoric or action. No one has flown a plane into an IRS office due to failure to pass single-payer health care. No one has brought guns to Republican town-hall meetings demanding judicial appointees be given an up or down vote. No billboards in Iowa have been erected comparing John Boenher to Hitler.

    I’ll admit though, my scope of experience is not necessarily as broad as it could be, so I’m happy to entertain your argument.

    • Doug Gregory says:

      If you don’t remember militant leftism, then I guess you don’t remember the 60’s and 70’s!
      What has happened since then, is that militants and extremists found a home in colleges and politics and are now “mainstream” (Obama’s friend in Chicago who would bomb a place all over again, just like he did back then, who is now helping guide development of Chicago’s schools). The liberal militants are now the educational and political elite. No need for guns now…

      • But if they don’t have guns now, then they are not being un-civil and therefore Mr. Russell would not need to compare them to Beck. Are you suggesting that he should also condemn things that happened 50 years ago in the name of even-handedness?

  8. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/07/20/MNMN1EHB37.DTL

    Here’s an article about a heavily armed convicted felon on his way to kill workers at the ACLU and the Tides Foundation. Obviously, this is horrible and another example of right-wing extremism. But are you like me? Did you have to ask: what the heck is the Tides Foundation?

    Well, apparently it’s one of Glenn Beck’s favorites bogey men. And according to the assailant’s mother, this guy loved his cable news.

    Civility in deed.

  9. youtube says:

    Terribly well executed piece!

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