Glenn Beck is a darling of Fox News viewers and a must-see for legions of religious conservatives. So given his profile and right-of-center views, it was no surprise when it was announced that Beck would be a featured speaker at this Sunday's commencement at Baptist-run Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., the brainchild of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority.
Falwell's son, Jerry Jr., is the current president of Liberty. In a statement
explaining the invitation, he called Beck "one of the few courageous voices in the national media standing up for the principles upon which this nation was founded."
Yet if conservative Christians share Beck's political and social views, many of them also remain extremely suspicious of Beck's Mormon faith. Beck became a Mormon as an adult and credits his faith with turning his life around. But evangelicals generally consider Mormonism a "cult" and not Christian.
As a result, Beck's appearance at Liberty has generated an unusual amount of public infighting among evangelicals -- and creating the kind of controversy that is often associated with Catholic colleges, such as Notre Dame experienced last year when President Obama was invited to be the commencement speaker.
Ryan Begue, a Florida pastor who is in this year's graduating class from Liberty's theological seminary, said he was "shocked and disappointed" at Falwell's invitation to Beck.
"It seems that the leadership's decision in this matter gives the impression that it is more committed to conservatism than the Gospel," Begue wrote in the Florida Baptist Witness
. "I have no beef with Glenn Beck as a person, but I certainly do with his religious beliefs. Why does Liberty not invite a Christian?"
Liberty University's Facebook page also lit up with the debate, while prominent Christian conservatives also weighed in.
"Alliances such as these are not glorifying to God, in that what association has God with false religions?" wrote John Ferguson, founder of the Voice of Truth blog
. "The tangential dangers when the evangelical community unites with the secular world for the sake of social or political agendas are numerous because it leads to a dilution of truths from the Word of God, opens the door to give credence to non-believers within evangelical circles and ultimately leads to the eternal destruction of lost people."
A 2007 Pew Forum survey
showed 25 percent of Americans would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate for president, with only Muslims and atheists earning higher negatives. But among white evangelicals who attend church weekly -- the GOP base and the dominant demographic of Liberty University -- the number rises to above 40 percent. In 2008, Focus on the Family, a leading lobby of the Christian right, pulled an interview
with Beck over concerns that they would appear to be sanctioning his Mormon faith.
And during his 2008 bid, Romney faced a serious pushback
from evangelicals who even opposed the idea of John McCain selecting him as his running mate on the Republican ticket, one of the factors that led McCain to finally choose Sarah Palin.
(Mormons insist they are Christians because they believe in Jesus Christ and consider the Bible Holy Scripture. But most traditional Christian churches do not accept the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- the formal name for Mormons -- as Christian because of the religion's beliefs on the nature of God, salvation, the Trinity and their scriptures, such as the Book of Mormon, and other texts discovered by founding prophet Joseph Smith in upstate New York in the 1800s.)
Falwell seemed to anticipate the risks of the Beck invitation when he noted in his statement that Liberty University has always held two end-of-year ceremonies -- a baccalaureate ceremony to confer degrees that "always includes a gospel message brought by someone who is in complete theological alignment with the university" and a separate commencement ceremony that "has always featured leaders from all walks of life and all faiths who share the university's social values and traditional family values."
"Commencement speakers," he noted, "have included representatives from the following faiths: Roman Catholicism, Judaism, mainline Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church, and even some speakers with no religious affiliation at all."
Falwell's effort did not forestall the controversy, however.
"We are not to put politics first and the Lord second," wrote
Steve McConkey, another prominent Christian conservative, who is upset at the Beck invitation. "If this country is to have another revival, we need to get back to the basics, just like an athlete who has to go back to the basics to learn proper skills. We join Glenn Beck in many of his viewpoints, however, we do not endorse his Mormon beliefs."
There has arguably been some softening, at least among the Southern Baptist leadership, in their view of Mormonism, perhaps influenced by the "ecumenism of the trenches" -- that in a culture war, all social conservatives must stick together. That is part of the reason that evangelicals and Roman Catholics now collaborate on fights against abortion and gay marriage despite their historical cultural divide and their ongoing doctrinal differences.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints used to be listed under "cults and sects" by the Southern Baptist Convention, but today is categorized among "newly developed religions" by the SBC's North American Mission Board. Similarly, some Southern Baptist leaders, such as Richard Land, have referred to Mormonism as the "fourth Abrahamic religion" after Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
But as the Glenn Beck commencement controversy shows, even fourth place isn't enough to overcome such long-held suspicions.