by Maurine Jensen Proctor
Editor-in-Chief, Meridian Magazine
Twenty-thousand people waving flags and carrying hand-lettered banners jammed into a park near Tampa, Florida last Saturday to celebrate America and show their support for Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is a scene that has been repeated at least fifteen times in America in recent weeks with 25,000 gathered in Atlanta, 10,000 in Cleveland, 20,000 in Fort Wayne, 10,000 in Richmond.
These swollen, enthusiastic turnouts are driven by an LDS radio talk show host, syndicated three hours a day, five days a week on 115 radio stations, originating from a station in Philadelphia. His name is Glenn Beck and he has had his own form of ‘shock and awe’ to see the explosive response to his suggestion for rallies.
Even before the Iraqi conflict began, Glenn and his staff decided, “No matter how unpopular this war gets, we are going to stay the course behind the troops.” One morning on his show a woman called in complaining that Susan Sarandon’s husband had claimed to be representing the American people when he expressed hostility about the country and the war in an appearance in England. He had said, “I am proud that I can represent the American people on this.”
“When did we elect him to represent us?” the caller wondered.
“A lot of my show, I just think out loud,” said Glenn. Someone had mentioned doing a pro-American rally to help people vent their frustration and so, live on the air, he said somewhat casually, without understanding the emotional tidal wave it would unleash, “Call your affiliate and tell them you want to do a pro-American rally.”
“By the time I got off the air, program directors from around the country said I had shut down their switchboards from people calling to say they wanted to rally for America.” The movement shot through the communities from this beginning, with rallies organized locally, often spearheaded by Clear Radio stations, and keynoted by Glenn Beck.
According to TheTampaTribune, Governor Jeb Bush spoke at the recent rally and told a cheering crowd, “Each generation has its defining moment,” Bush said. “This generation’s legacy is being written now on the seas and in sands of the Middle East.”
A tearful Glenn Beck said, “Begin your day and end your day on your knees. Pray for our troops and pray for our president.”
That certainly sounds like the sentiment of a Latter-day Saint, but at Meridian we were surprised to learn that a syndicated radio talk show host was of our faith-and we hadn’t heard about him. Our headquarters are a nerve center of information. People call us and email us by the hundreds to keep us informed of stories about Latter-day Saints. We scour newspapers by the score each day searching for significant news about the Saints, yet someone as high profile as a syndicated talk show host had escaped our glance?
Sure enough his website at www.glennbeck.com indicated that he was a “Mormon.” Still, after I had made the many phone calls it took to get through to him and set up an interview, I began with an unusually tactless and cheeky question. “Are you really a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?”
He was a passionately committed member of the Church, all right, baptized three years ago. What followed was an extraordinary story.
Love of Radio
Glenn said, “I knew I wanted to be in radio when I was eight years old. I grew up in Seattle where it was always raining, and on one sunny day my mother wanted me to go outside and play and instead, I was watching television.”
Glenn’s mother told him that when she had been a child, she had listened to radio, and she got him an album of the Golden Years of Radio. He became entranced with shows like “The Shadow” and “War of the Worlds”
“Television does all of the work for people,” Glenn said. “You just sit and passively watch it, but radio requires 50-50 participation. You have to paint the pictures in your head. This is a great collaboration.”
He was set on a path, and by age 13 he won a contest that allowed him to be on the air for an hour and play his favorite music. “I got a job at three pretty bad radio stations at once, and was fired from all three the same day,” he laughs, but by the age of 16, he was working at KUBE, the top radio station in his area. He had the gift.
A Bad Seed
Yet, he had something else, too: a tendency for despair, partially born out of his mother’s suicide. “I was the bad seed,” he said.
After graduating from high school, he moved to Salt Lake where he lived with a returned missionary, a move that those who loved him hoped would rehabilitate him. With his powerful, charismatic personality, “instead,” he said, “I was turning the returned missionary to the dark side.”
Next, he moved to Washington D.C. and partnered with a news guy who was also a Latter-day Saint. “I fell into the wrong crowd again,” he said, “and I found myself out of work.”
Next, it was on to Corpus Christi, Texas, to work on the radio, where the station’s general manager was a member of the Church. “That was the third Mormon, I’d worked with in a row,” he said, “in a business that doesn’t have that many members of the Church.”
Still, he didn’t join the Church, nor have any interest in it. “I thought they were freaks,” he said. “They couldn’t drink. They couldn’t smoke-and that’s what I liked doing.”
Glenn was still young and drifting. The next stop was Baltimore, Maryland where he worked for a year and a half with a writer on a show who backed out five days before it was to begin.
“I had a show starting in five days. I needed somebody with some significant writing talent to help me. I called everybody I knew and finally a friend said he knew a man, Pat Gray, from Salt Lake City who can help you. Pat was also LDS. Glenn hired him, and notes, “We were best friends by the time we left the airport.”
Glenn and Pat worked together ten years. “I was a flaming alcoholic,” he said. “I was a ‘screwed up’ individual. I was very successful when I was very young, and it made me a monster. My slogan was, ‘I have people.’ I once fired a guy for bringing me the wrong kind of pen to sign autographs.”
Yet Glenn loved his LDS friend and watched him closely, dumbfounded that a Latter-day Saint could live with what he considered such impossible standards.
“I actually wanted him desperately to fail, to prove that you couldn’t live the way he lived. But his family grew and prospered.But I had no interest.”
A Rough Ride
Life continued to be a rough ride for Glenn. “I lost everything I had. I lost all of my money. I was working in the smallest market ever.” He wanted answers about the meaning of existence, because it felt meaningless to him.
He was accepted to go to school at Yale to study theology, but to him his studies multiplied his questions and gave no answers.
Pat Gray called him up periodically and said, “If you want some answers, I have some for you,” but Glenn only replied, “I’ve heard your answers before. ”
“No, you haven’t,” Pat answered.
“I can’t follow your lifestyle,” Glenn announced.
Then came “a whole amazing series of events,” said Glenn. He met Tania, a wonderful woman who was a Catholic and they fell in love. When he hinted that he was going to propose, she said, “I’m not going to marry you if you don’t have religion.” He told her that religion was about control, manipulation, power and greed. “I can’t do it.”
The Church Tour
Yet he loved her and since Catholicism wasn’t really working for her, they began what Glenn calls, ‘the church tour.’ “Would you find a church with me?” she asked. “We’ll go to everything and anything,” he agreed.
“We began at ‘A’ and worked our way down and we weren’t impressed with anything, though it did seem cool to be Jewish,” he joked. To those meetings he also took his two daughters from a former marriage.
Once in a while his Latter-day Saint friend would call-his best friend for ten years-and he’d say, ‘You owe it to me to go one time to my Church.
“I’m never going to become a Mormon,” he said. “You guys are freaks.”
Finally, Glenn agreed to go, but when he found out it was a three-hour block on Sundays he responded, “Are you out of your mind? You get one hour just like everybody else.”
That Sunday, Glenn, Tania and the girls went to Church and “we were greeted by a guy whom we called ‘the amazing Mr. Plastic Man. ‘ This guy had to be the happiest guy on the planet. He said, ‘I am so happy you are here. He seemed to love us and I thought, ‘I barely like myself, how can you possibly love me?'”
After sacrament meeting, Glenn and his family started to make their way to the door to leave, but, he said, “Pat had called the Mormon Squad in and said, ‘Don’t let them leave.’ Cornered, the Becks went to a Gospel Essentials Sunday School class and something astonishing happened.
Somebody raised his hand and asked a real question, saying, “This doesn’t make sense to me.”
“I was flabbergasted,” said Glenn. “This is a place where you can ask real questions and if something doesn’t make sense to you, you can acknowledge that? I realized you can ask real questions here and they had answers that I couldn’t find at Yale.
“So I thought, I’ve got a real question, and we’ll be out of here in five minutes. I raised my hand and said, ‘Where’s Gandhi?’ It was a question, of course, designed to skewer the teacher, because Glenn knew full well that most of the churches he had attended thought Gandhi was in hell.
“I was reaching for my car keys at this point,” said Glenn, but the teacher said, “Who in the class would like to answer that?”
A class member explained the teaching of the gospel in the spirit world and baptism for the dead. “Wow,” said Glenn. “I can live with that. What a bigger concept that is than I’ve ever heard before.”
Glenn and his family left church that day, and his daughter who has cerebral palsy said, “Dad, can we go back there next week?”
“Why?” asked Glenn to this child whom he knew had been particularly connected to spiritual things since she was a little child.
She answered, “Because I feel so warm inside. It just feels so good here.”
Study and Conversion
The family decided that they would continue to go to church until they found some reason not to, and Glenn began studying intently, as he said, “turning this thing upside down and trying to find a reason not to go.”
He continued to feel great about the Church, and his voice shook with tearful emotion and testimony as he got to this part of his story. About six months later, he was sitting in a priesthood meeting taught by “the amazing Mr. Plastic Man,” who was talking about the concept of Zion, a place where people lived together in peace and harmony and without want, working for each other. “How could this happen?” asked the teacher. “There is only one way.” The teacher got tears in his eyes as he said it. “It is if you truly love me and I truly love you, and with everyone we meet we look for that spirit in them that we can love.”
Glenn said, “I realized that the ‘amazing Mr. Plastic Man’ was the most loving person I had ever met in my life. I told myself, ‘If it is Kool-Aid these people are drinking, I’m drinking it, because I want to be that kind of person.'”
Glenn’s best friend, Pat Gray, baptized him, choking with such emotion he could hardly get the words out.
“Every step of the way I had tested the Lord” said Glenn, “but I had gotten to the point that I couldn’t carry this load anymore. I said to the Lord, ‘I want to be a different person, but I can’t do it alone. I am accepting this gospel 110%. Please help me get rid of all of this poison in my soul.’ And He has.
“The sacrament has a totally different meaning to me than most people. A lot of people take it and it’s just a ritual. From time to time I can still feel the wounds inside of me, and when I partake, it is the renewing I need. It has truly been miraculous.
“The best decision I ever made is the one I fought for 15 years.”
That was three years ago when Glenn and his family were baptized and his whole life changed. He had been trying for two years to get a job in talk radio and couldn’t get anybody to pay attention to him. “I had been looking for an agent and couldn’t find one, and I didn’t have a plan,” he said.
The day after he was baptized, an agent called from New York, saying “I hear you are looking for somebody to represent you.” As the conversation progressed, he asked if Glenn knew Gabe Hobbs, the president of programming at Clear Channel radio. At that instant, the call-waiting signal indicated Glenn had another call. He answered it to find it was Gabe Hobbs. When he came back to talk to his would-be agent and told him who had called, the agent said, “That seems to be a gift from heaven.”
“Yeah, it sure was,” said Glenn.
Glenn was offered a radio talk show and debuted in 2000 on WFLA-AM in Tampa, Florida. “The show that I inherited was in 18th place,” and he laughs ruefully, ” and then it rocketed to 21st.” Within one year of his doing his first talk show during the afternoon drive, The Glenn Beck Program gave the station its first #1 program ever. Things exploded from there and Clear Channel offered him the dream job-radio syndication originating from Tampa.
Yet, the move to Florida meant he was away from his daughters who lived in Philadelphia with his first wife, and he had promised them that he wouldn’t stay away longer than two years. What’s more a CBS radio station offered him a job in Philadelphia. Tania and Glenn prayed intently, certain that they needed to live in Philadelphia.
Glenn’s Florida employers wondered, “What is it going to take for you to accept this job as syndicated talk show host?” He told them it wasn’t negotiating for more money, but he had to work in Philadelphia. All they must do to cinch a contract with him was to build a station there.
Glenn said, “I wanted that job so badly I could taste it, but the Philadelphia job with CBS seemed the only alternative so I could be with my daughters. Tania and I went to the temple, each praying about our future, and I said to the Lord that if He wanted me to do anything differently than go with CBS and pass up this syndication job, he would have to shout it at me.
In the temple, the answer was clearly given, “shouted” at Glenn-“Clear Channel.” To make the answer even clearer, he couldn’t remember the name of the radio station that he was sure he would go with in Philadelphia. The name “CBS” completely eluded him.
Within two years of the day he had started in Tampa, he was back in Philadelphia at a station built for him, originating his syndicated show and keeping his promise to his children. “In that first year, we were hoping to have about 20 stations and not lose money hand over first,” said Glenn, but instead in that first year his program soared to 80 stations and by 18 months was on 115 stations, including major stations in Washington D.C., New York, Atlanta and Dallas.
Why do people flock to hear Glenn Beck? He said its because, “I’m me, flaws and all. They come because my show is honest. I’m not afraid of my past. I’m not afraid of the mistakes I’ve made. I’m as real as I can be. I’m not somebody on a crusade.”
He talks about politics; he talks about principles “but not in a religious sense.” People who listen to his show don’t necessarily know he’s a Latter-day Saint, but he says, “I don’t hide it either.”
He tells the story of one time in Florida where he was talking about religion and somebody shot at him, “What religion are you?”
He said, “I remember pausing on the air, and thinking, if I say I’m a Mormon, what kind of damage will that do to my career?” Then he thought, “Who care’s I’m saying it.”
Again tearfully, he said, “It didn’t occur to me what kind of damage I could do to the Church, with anything I said. As I grew in the Spirit, I came to regret that moment of thinking that I was so important.”
Glenn’s staff laughs at what they call his Mormon code, the principles he teaches that he learned at Church. He also admits that when you are on the air three hours a day, you make mistakes. “I am very grateful that I have several wonderful bishops in my stake who have no problem shooting me an email and saying that I’ve made a mistake. They help me an awful lot without judging me.”
Glenn’s show is funny. With his candor, passion and sarcasm he pushes his listener’s buttons. When he addresses serious issues, he often provides an historical framework. “I lean conservative, (not Republican)” he said. “You can’t fit me into a category.” What makes his show particularly winning is that he espouses wholesome values, however, with a comedic, in-your-face edge. His website sports an “End of the World” page that is part funny, part serious with sections like “Wars and Rumors of Wars.”
Beck will also express his strong opinions by using fictitious characters. For instance, when the “under God” line of the Pledge of Allegiance was judged unconstitutional, creating a national debate, Beck played the part of Bill Rogers, president of The People for the Ethical Treatment of People, who took the issue one step further. Rogers (Beck) accused Beck of oppressing all atheists because Beck supports the use of “under God” in the Pledge. As they (Beck with himself) engaged in an argument over the issue, Rogers said his organization is forging ahead to eliminate “in God we trust” from all money and the word “God” from all church signs. He further advocated that the word dog be changed because it spells “God” backwards.
People love Glenn Beck; they are taken and moved by him, and now he can say wholeheartedly, that he loves them, too. It’s a place he never thought he’d find in his life until he found what he was looking for-the God who loves him.