GUY RAZ, host:
It's safe to say some of those members of Congress might chalk up the decline in civility in part to the men and women on cable TV, including one of the most influential, Glenn Beck.
(Montage of clips from TV show "The Glenn Beck Program")
Mr. GLENN BECK (Host, "The Glenn Beck Program"): Oh, we can't afford any more... The battle for the soul of America... The paradigm is about to change... Where our Constitution is hanging by a thread... We would like some sanity in our country for a second...
RAZ: Now, all that may sound like stock political tirades, but take another listen.
(Soundbite of TV show "The Glenn Beck Program")
Mr. BECK: Our Constitution is hanging by a thread.
RAZ: That phrase, hanging by a thread, may have a deeper meaning, at least to a small minority of people within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church.
Glenn Beck is an LDS member himself, and in a new book, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank makes the case that there's a specific reason Beck uses that phrase.
Mr. DANA MILBANK (Author, "Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America"): Hanging by a thread is the word. That's the word that keeps getting repeated over and over again through the generations. And as this has been described by...
RAZ: According to obscure Mormon lore, something called the White Horse Prophecy foretells a time when the Constitution hangs by a thread, a time when Mormon elders will rise up to rescue America from tyranny.
Mr. MILBANK: It's actually a fairly benign prophecy. They're talking about restoring law and order and peace and tranquility. It doesn't sound like a violent thing, although sometimes in Beck's telling, it turns into that...
RAZ: And this is a relatively obscure...
Mr. MILBANK: It is. And I think a lot of Mormons say, well, wait. That is not a central tenet of our thinking. That's off on the side here. And I agree. I think that in many ways, Glenn Beck has picked up some of the more obscure and indeed some of the more extreme work of Mormon thinkers such as Cleon Skousen who are quite controversial.
RAZ: Now, in a moment, we'll get into how you believe Glenn Beck sort of makes allusions to some of these Mormon ideas in his rhetoric. But I want to listen to him using that phrase. This is an interview that he did with Senator Orrin Hatch about a year and a half ago, who is also a Mormon. He's a Republican senator from Utah. Let's take a listen.
(Soundbite of TV show "The Glenn Beck Program")
Mr. BECK: Hello, Senator. How are you, sir?
Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): Well, nice to be with you, Glenn. I appreciate your program, and I appreciate all that you're trying to do here in spreading the word.
Mr. BECK: Barack Obama - talk about the Constitution.
Sen. HATCH: Oh, yeah.
Mr. BECK: And I thought, we are at the point, or we are very near the point, where our Constitution is hanging by a thread.
Sen. HATCH: You got that right. I believe the Constitution is hanging by a thread.
RAZ: Okay. So there, you hear that tape. Now, I hear that tape, Dana, and I think: I've heard that plenty of times in my life, people saying, well, the Constitution's hanging by a thread, or this victory is hanging by a thread.
Mr. MILBANK: Mm-hmm.
RAZ: I'm wondering if there really is a subtext there.
Mr. MILBANK: It's possible that there's not, except that when you look at it, and he had Orrin Hatch on again and used that exact same phrase again, it's a phrase that Beck has used repeatedly over time. He is the guy who sees himself and his followers as rescuing the Constitution that is hanging by this proverbial thread.
RAZ: Say he is informed - and I would assume he is informed by his Mormon faith, right...
Mr. MILBANK: Mm-hmm.
RAZ: ...and he - on his program, he makes certain allusions to things that maybe he's read in the Book of Mormon or things that he's heard in church on Sunday. What's wrong with that? I mean, plenty of people on television and politicians do the same thing every day.
Mr. MILBANK: Yes, and I didn't write about it as if there's something wrong with it. I mean, my whole look at Glenn Beck is every aspect of him - when you look at his background, and you look at questions of race and the questions of violence, and even the fact that he's a brilliant entertainer is a large part of the book.
I don't find anything nefarious in it necessarily at all. I just think it's interesting that he's saying these things that would be heard one way by one audience, and by probably, you know, 95 percent of the people, it would completely go over their head.
RAZ: That's the Washington Post's Dana Milbank. His new book on Glenn Beck is called "Tears of a Clown."
We called up Phil Barlow to see if Milbank is on to something. Barlow's a professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University.
Professor PHIL BARLOW (Mormon History and Culture, Utah State University): Very few contemporary Latter-Day Saints would understand what that refers to. At least a minority, a small minority of them would, and among that minority, very few of them would be able to explain what it actually refers to. They just might have heard the phrase.
But there is more currency to this line that Mr. Milbank has written about, about the Constitution hanging by a thread. That phrase, Latter-Day Saints would have heard of.
RAZ: So, would a lot of folks in the LDS church sort of regard people who use this phrase, hanging by a thread, or who believe in this prophecy, as sort of fringe characters within the church?
Prof. BARLOW: Well, anybody who started talking about the White Horse Prophecy with its apocalyptic images and exotic imagery would be considered kind of marginal by the majority or a little crankpot-esque. But the notion that the Constitution might be under stress or even in crisis, that would have some resonance in some popular Mormon culture.
RAZ: Have you, as a scholar of the LDS church, have you ever heard or seen what you could identify as other allusions that Glenn Beck makes directly to teachings or writings from the Book of Mormon or from his faith?
Prof. BARLOW: Oh, yeah. He talks about a God of miracles. That's certainly a Mormon theme. He talks about the family as the basis of society, and that's not unique to Mormonism, but it's distinctively sharp in Mormonism.
He talks about the importance of storing food and necessities for any calamities that might strike, tithing your income, the United States Constitution not only hanging by a thread but being a divinely inspired document. And that has a specific reference in Mormon scripture that talks about the Constitution as divinely inspired.
There's a lot of things where his personal views intersect with Mormonism or draw from Mormon imagery or language or principles.
RAZ: That's Phil Barlow. He's a professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University. He spoke with me from the studios of Utah Public Radio in Logan, Utah.
Phil Barlow, thank you so much.
Prof. BARLOW: You're very welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank says there's a phrase in Glenn Beck's rhetoric that may have a particular meaning to a small percentage of Latter-day Saints: "The Constitution is hanging by a thread."
Fox News personality Glenn Beck drew tens of thousands to his "Restoring Honor" rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August.
Alex Wong / Getty Images North America
When Jon Stewart famously parodied Glenn Beck earlier this year, the Comedy Central host zeroed in on the ways Beck sees hidden meanings or conspiracies in the policies or statements of his political targets.
Stewart stood before a Beck-sized chalkboard with the word "libertarian" written in big block letters.
"Lie! Lie! Lie!" Stewart yelled, pointing to the first syllable of the word. "Who's doing the lying? Tell me, word on the board!"
Stewart paused dramatically. He turned to the board and circled the last two syllables of li-bert-arian. "Aryans!" he yelled.
Now, in a new book, it's Glenn Beck's words that are being culled by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank.
One of the trademark Beck lines that Milbank deconstructs is "the Constitution is hanging by a thread."
In the book Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America, Milbank says that line is a veiled reference to an obscure Mormon prophecy that Latter-day Saints will rescue the country from certain doom. It's known as the White Horse Prophecy.
Only a handful of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are aware of the "White Horse Prophecy," according to Utah State University professor Phil Barlow, who teaches Mormon history and culture.
"And among that minority, very few would be able to explain what it actually refers to," Barlow tells NPR's Guy Raz.
The prophecy originates with the diary entry of an LDS church member, who scribbled the following quote and attributed it to Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church:
"You will see the Constitution of the United States almost destroyed," the diary quotes Smith as saying. "It will hang like a thread as fine as a silk fiber."
Whether that quote actually came from Joseph Smith, Barlow says, is difficult to prove. But the language itself? "That phrase, Latter-day Saints would have heard of."
Choice Of Words
"It's actually a fairly benign prophecy," Milbank tells Raz. According to Milbank's research, "they're talking about restoring law and order and peace and tranquility," he says. "It doesn't sound like a violent thing."
Milbank emphasizes that any Latter-day Saints who believe in the "White Horse Prophecy" or its coded foretellings would be viewed as fringe within the church.
"I think that in many ways, Glenn Beck has picked up some of the more obscure -- and more extreme -- work of Mormon thinkers," he says.
There's no denying Glenn Beck has used the phrase "the Constitution is hanging by a thread." In fact, he's been saying it at least since Nov. 4, 2008.
"We are at the point -- or we are very near the point -- where our Constitution is hanging by a thread," Beck told a guest on his radio show, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who is himself a Mormon.
"You got that right," Hatch replied.
Milbank says that exchange and others like it could be coincidental. "Except that it's a phrase Beck has used repeatedly over time," he continues. "He is the guy who sees himself -- and his followers -- as rescuing the Constitution that is hanging by this proverbial thread."
The Revolution Will Not Be Coded
Barlow, the Utah State professor, agrees that Beck's use of "hanging by a thread" is likely not coincidental.
But is he trying to deliver a secret coded message to his followers that an uprising is nigh?
Barlow says Beck is making conservative arguments by "drawing on this element that runs through Mormon consciousness."
In other words, using the parlance of one's church does not a secret conspiracy make.
"I didn't write about it as if there was something wrong with it," Milbank says. "I just think it's interesting that he's saying these things that would be heard one way by one audience, and by probably 95 percent of the people -- it would go completely over their head."
And indeed, for a certain LDS audience, Beck is appealing. Barlow has a laundry list of other Mormon ideals to which Beck commonly alludes.
"He talks about a God of miracles," Barlow says. "That's certainly a Mormon theme."
There's also the family as the basis of society -- "not unique to Mormonism but distinctively sharp in Mormonism," Barlow says. There's the importance of storing food and necessities for any calamities; tithing one's income; the Constitution as a divinely inspired document; freedom and personal responsibility -- all ideals Beck espouses frequently.
"There's a lot of things," Barlow says, "where his personal views intersect with Mormonism or draw from Mormon imagery or language or principles."