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The Globe and Mail

Glenn Beck: preacher, politician, entertainer and marketer

The countdown clock ticks ominously outside the Fox News headquarters on Sixth Avenue. The "Largest Tax Hike Ever" is only 100 days, 11 hours and 32 minutes away.

Not that any of us have been watching.

Barack Obama's proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest citizens is not what has brought 30 chosen ones, me included, to Studio D at the most-watched (not to mention polemical) cable news network in America.

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We instead have been selected to form the audience at a taping of Glenn Beck, the successful weekday afternoon show hosted by perhaps the most charismatic, controversial – and entrepreneurial – figure in the modern American media. And, if his fans had their way, potential candidate for Mr. Obama's job.

With only one "audience show" a week, tickets are awarded to the luckiest of Mr. Beck's followers – or, in my case, curious observers. We have each filled out a questionnaire for the privilege. The requirements include expounding on our favourite Founding Father, explaining how what we've learned in history textbooks differs from what we take away from the show and providing thoughts on the dangers of mixing government and religion, the theme of this week's episode.

To his detractors, Mr. Beck is a flake, a fake, a fanatic – or all three rolled up into a hyperactive time bomb. They charge that his alternately hysterical and weepy rants border on invitations to armed uprising. There is no denying, however, that he has captivated a significant subsection of American conservatives with his version of their country's founding myth.

In his nearly 20-minute opening monologue, delivered with the aid of a teleprompter, he takes on critics who say that he seeks to establish Christianity as America's official religion.

"People will say I'm trying to get you into religion to control or manipulate you. Nothing could be further from the truth," begins Mr. Beck, who is taller and less doughy-looking in person than he appears on the tube. "I want you to be self-reliant. If you know your relationship with God, no man can tell you he can create a right for you, because you know who your rights come from."

The real peril, Mr. Beck continues, is Democrats' use of government to realize Mr. Obama's social justice agenda. He plays an excerpt from a speech given by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in which she calls on a group of bishops to use the pulpit to push for immigration reform. He attacks Obama spiritual adviser Jim Wallis, who has called the redistribution of wealth "what the Gospel is all about."

"Jesus didn't say, 'Give all your money to Caesar and Caesar will create a program to buy you a pair of pants'," Mr. Beck counters.

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There is a precedent for the slippery slope on which "big government progressives" have put America, Mr. Beck warns. It's Nazi Germany.

Preacher, politician, entertainer – and, most notably, master marketer – Mr. Beck is not the right-wing media celebrity with the highest ratings. On radio, that would be Rush Limbaugh; on TV, it's Bill O'Reilly, who, like every other Fox host, kills the competition in his prime-time slot.

But no one else matches Mr. Beck with his multimedia wallop, creating an all-pervasive presence that spans radio, television, books, cross-country arena tours and the Internet (his latest property is a news site called The Blaze) that has made him the most influential and wealthiest Obama-basher of them all.

Well, maybe not as influential as Sarah Palin. But the $55-million (U.S.), according to Forbes magazine, that Mr. Beck's Mercury Radio Arts pulled in during the two years to March 1 far surpasses the earnings power Ms. Palin has shown since quitting her day job as governor of Alaska.

No one in line seems to begrudge the 46-year-old Mr. Beck his money. How could they? To be a Beck follower is to celebrate the individual empowerment afforded by American capitalism. In Mr. Beck's view, America might just be the last place on earth where the Protestant ethic stands a fighting chance, though he warns it is in grave danger of being snuffed out by Mr. Obama and his "big government" policies.

Though he called Mr. Obama a "racist" barely a year ago, he has since reformulated his critique of the President. He now defines Mr. Obama's belief system as a kind of "liberation theology" aimed at seeking reparation for centuries of black oppression.

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"It's all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation," Mr. Beck, who became a Mormon in 1999, said on Fox News last month. "I don't know what that is, other than it's not Muslim, it's not Christian. It's a perversion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it."

The increasingly evangelical tone of his sermonizing – most noticeably during his massive Aug. 28 "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial – has led to speculation that Mr. Beck is angling to become the leader of the U.S. Christian right – if he isn't already.

The event held on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered at the same site, was not overtly political. That is, unless you believe the aim was to mobilize evangelicals, who have been feeling somewhat left out of the current right-wing politics dominated by spending-obsessed Tea Partiers. If the religious right gets energized enough to elect Republicans in the Nov. 2 midterm congressional elections, Mr. Beck's call to arms will be largely responsible.

"Something that is beyond man is happening," Mr. Beck told the crowd on the Washington Mall, which numbered anywhere from fewer than 100,000 to one million depending on your politics. "America today begins to turn back to God."

Ms. Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2008, joined Mr. Beck on stage at the August rally. A couple of weeks later, the duo appeared together again before a sold-out crowd at an Anchorage arena.

"We would like to announce that in 2012, that we will both be," Mr. Beck began before taking a painfully long pause, "voting."

The prospect of getting this close to Mr. Beck in person has left Elaine, a fifty-something woman from working-class Queens waiting outside the studio, brimming with energy.

"I told them I was retired from the police department and they called back the next day with tickets," explains the cheery blonde, who is a devoted listener of Mr. Beck's three-hour weekday syndicated radio show, the third most popular in the country after those of Mr. Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

Mr. Hannity also hosts a top-rated prime-time Fox News show, drawing nearly twice as many viewers as Rachel Maddow on Fox's progressive rival, MSNBC, and four times more than the soon-to-leave Larry King on CNN.

Mr. Beck, who has 10 million unique weekly listeners on radio, has recently been drawing about 1.7 million viewers to his Fox show. Though that is significantly less than a year ago, he still crushes the competition, attracting almost three times more fans than his nearest rival. If the conservative media's audience is any indication of ballot box strength, Republicans should clean up in the midterms.

Elaine's friend Kathy, a petite Irish New Yorker with a throaty smoker's voice, is the most avid reader. She has devoured most of the dozens of books Mr. Beck recommends on his show – pushing them up the best-seller lists the way Oprah Winfrey once did. Kathy has just finished Dismantling America, a collection of essays by Thomas Sowell, a black conservative and fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

"I read it in less than two days," notes Kathy, describing the causal relationship between high taxes and unemployment advanced in the book.

Outside the studio, John from Rochester, a vice-president at an energy engineering firm, has monopolized the attention of Elaine and Kathy with his denunciations of Mr. Obama's health-care reform law and the President's failed attempt to push climate change legislation through Congress.

"I'm voting for you," Elaine gushes.

Not quite as much, mind you, as when she sets her eyes on Mr. Beck in the flesh. That a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser, who takes medication for his attention deficit disorder, can summon this kind of devotion is either a testimony to Americans' hunger for a return to simpler times or Mr. Beck's persuasiveness.

"It's not surprising that somebody like Mr. Beck is able to stir up a certain portion of the country," Mr. Obama acknowledged recently, attributing the Fox News host's appeal to Americans' anxiety over their nation's economy and security.

As with Ms. Palin, Mr. Beck's true motives are the subject of widespread speculation. Is he merely interested in making money? If he is, he has certainly hit the mother lode, tapping a critical mass of Americans willing to shell out hundreds of dollars to attend one of his arena shows, buy his DVDs or subscribe to his website's "Insider Extreme" edition.

Yet, his transition from schlock jock radio host and self-described clown and entertainer into a nearly humourless conservative missionary has, if anything, led to a parsing of his audience. Those looking only to be entertained may be disappointed. Mr. Beck, in his current incarnation, seems increasingly to appeal to hard-core believers alone.

Whether this suggests, as Mr. Beck has, that "God dropped a giant sandbag on my head," calling him to "wake America up" is for a higher power to determine.

As we mingle outside the studio after the show, Mr. Beck exits, bodyguards and wife Tania in tow. Our invitations stipulated that he will not pose for photos or sign autographs, so no one dares ask.

"Thanks guys," he offers, somewhat smaller than life, as he walks off into the Manhattan night.

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