I was raised to respect the leadership and did so for the first forty years of my life or so. My life followed the traditional pattern of a young man in a tiny mountain town whose dreams and aspirations were still being formed. I remember American History as a required class my junior year and American Government my senior year.
Ezra Taft Benson was an outspoken opponent of communism and socialism, and a strong supporter, but not an official member, of the John Birch Society, which he praised as “the most effective non-church organization in our fight against creeping socialism and Godless Communism.” Benson requested permission of church president David O. McKay to join the Birch Society and sit on its board, but the request was denied.
Benson was a close friend with Birch Society founder Robert W. Welch Jr., exchanging dozens of letters, and many hours in person discussing politics. When Nikita Khrushchev came in September 1959 to the USA, Benson opposed his visit. From the 1950s to the 1980s, his public support of anti-communism often put him at odds with other leaders of the LDS Church. In 1960, Benson made a proposition to Brigham Young University president Ernest L. Wilkinson that his son Reed be used as a spy to “find out who the orthodox teachers were and report to his father.” Wilkinson declined the offer, stating “neither Brother Lee nor I want espionage of that character.” Later in the 1960s and 1970s members and advocates of the Birch Society did conduct espionage at BYU.
In October 1961 General Conference, Benson said, “No true Latter-day Saint and no true American can be a socialist or a communist or support programs leading in that direction.” This, and similar statements by Benson in the December Church News led Hugh B. Brown, a politically liberal member of the first presidency of the LDS Church, to begin publicly and privately push back against Benson.
In the April 1962 General Conference Brown said, “The degree of a man’s aversion to communism may not always be measured by the noise he makes in going about and calling everyone a communist who disagrees with his personal political bias. … There is no excuse for members of this Church, especially men who hold the priesthood, to be opposing one another over communism.”
In October 1962, Benson formally endorsed the John Birch Society, as his son Reed Benson accepted a leadership role in the society. Reed Benson had been using LDS Church chapels for Birch Society meetings, a move that angered both Brown and first counselor Henry D. Moyle, who believed that it violated the LDS Church policy. Hugh B. Brown wrote in a letter shortly after the endorsement that he was “disgusted” and if Ezra Taft Benson continued his John Birch activities that “some disciplinary action should be taken.”
In January 1963, the First Presidency issued a statement, “We deplore the presumption of some politicians, especially officers, co-ordinators and members of the John Birch Society, who undertake to align the Church or its leadership with their political views.” Three days later, Benson spoke at a Birch Society endorsed political rally, reported by several newspapers as purposefully ignoring the First Presidency statement, and embarrassing to the LDS Church. The Birch Society in February 1963 asked its members to “Write to President McKay,” with the suggested verbiage to praise “the great service Ezra Taft Benson and his son Reed (our Utah Coordinator) are rendering to this battle, with the hope that they will be encouraged to continue.”
That same month, Benson gave a copy of his book, The Red Carpet: A Forthright Evaluation of the Rising Tide of Socialism-the Royal Road to Communism, to newly called Apostle N. Eldon Tanner, who was a Democrat, and had been a Canadian politician in the Alberta Social Credit Party.
In 1963, the First Presidency sent Benson to Europe to preside over the missionary work there. Some, including the New York Times, interpreted this move as an “exile” after Benson’s virtual endorsement of the John Birch Society in general conference. McKay publicly denied that the assignment was an exile or a rebuke, but other church leaders, including Joseph Fielding Smith, indicated that a purpose in sending Benson to Europe was to break his ties with the Birch Society.
He published a 1966 pamphlet entitled “Civil Rights, Tool of Communist Deception”. In a similar vein, during a 1972 general conference of the LDS Church, Benson recommended that all members of the church read Gary Allen’s New World Order tract “None Dare Call It a Conspiracy”. U.S. Representative Ralph R. Harding, during a speech in Congress, accused Benson of being “a spokesperson for the radical right” and using his apostleship to give the impression that the church “approved of” the John Birch Society. President Eisenhower endorsed Harding’s criticism of Benson.
When I began to express doubts about Church history, the literality of golden plates, the idea that spiritual wifery involving young teenage girls was righteous did not imply to anyone that I was doubting the Church or its leaders – so long as I kept it to myself. Once I made such thoughts known however, the knee-jerking commenced.
As a young Mormon husband and father who still carried many of the traditional conservative thinking that existed in the 1970’s and 80’s under predominantly the influence of Ezra Taft Benson who eventually became the Prophet, I had my biases. In 1968 and about to enter the military, I voted for Nixon because LBJ had gotten us deeper into VietNam. In 1972 I voted for Nixon against McGovern because he was supported by the hippy beatnik crowd.
Although I voted for Carter in 1976 because Ford had pardoned the crook Nixon, I went rushing back into the arms of Reagan who asked if I was better off now than four years ago.
Somewhere over the years – probably when the innate conservatism of the Church and culture collided with the radical and liberal thinking of the generations of the 1960’s and thereafter, the idea of political correctness took on a different form.
I felt that I fit in with my culture, my society and my religion, all of which taught some form of what I now feel to be Kindergarten conservativism. When the future President of the Church, Harold B. Lee, said the following in General Conference, April of 1971 when I was in the military and serving overseas, it went right over my head. I was, without thinking about it in such terms, a Kindergarten Conservative and not any kind of liberal.
Unfortunately, some are among us who claim to be Church members but are somewhat like the scoffers in Lehi’s vision—standing aloof and seemingly inclined to hold in derision the faithful who choose to accept Church authorities as God’s special witnesses of the gospel and his agents in directing the affairs of the Church.
There are those in the Church who speak of themselves as liberals who, as one of our former presidents has said, “read by the lamp of their own conceit.” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine [Deseret Book Co., 1939], p. 373.) One time I asked one of our Church educational leaders how he would define a liberal in the Church. He answered in one sentence: “A liberal in the Church is merely one who does not have a testimony.”
Dr. John A. Widtsoe, former member of the Quorum of the Twelve and an eminent educator, made a statement relative to this word liberal as it applied to those in the Church. This is what he said:
“The self-called liberal [in the Church] is usually one who has broken with the fundamental principles or guiding philosophy of the group to which he belongs. … He claims membership in an organization but does not believe in its basic concepts; and sets out to reform it by changing its foundations. …
“It is folly to speak of a liberal religion, if that religion claims that it rests upon unchanging truth.”
And then Dr. Widtsoe concludes his statement with this: “It is well to beware of people who go about proclaiming that they are or their churches are liberal. The probabilities are that the structure of their faith is built on sand and will not withstand the storms of truth.” (“Evidences and Reconciliations,” Improvement Era, vol. 44 , p. 609.)
On Speaking Evil of Leaders
In 1839, Mormon prophet Joseph Smith received and then published the following as part of Section 121 of the Book of Commandments (later renamed the book of Doctrine and Covenants.)
D&C 121: 16
Cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed, saith the Lord, and cry they have sinned when they have not sinned before me, saith the Lord, but have done that which was meet in mine eyes, and which I commanded them.
As a fundamental of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, this concept has become thoroughly ingrained in the society of active believers who publicly support and sustain the top leadership of the Church every April and October.
This concept is so ingrained in the believing culture that knee-jerk reactions are easily predictable and are triggered almost instantaneously with the appearance or hearing of disagreement with the highest leadership. In the mid 1980’s when my doubts overcame my convictions I was not aware of the impact of my publicizing my doubts. The knee-jerk reactions appeared to be instinctive, un-meditated and perfunctory.
Being slow of wit and thick headed I was a long time attempting to persuade friends and families of what I considered the justification and legitimacy of my thoughts and conclusions. Then it finally dawned on me. I was criticising personal points of view, sets of beliefs and values that were working very well in the lives of those who could not seem to understand my thinking, let alone agree with me. I came to understand that I was communicating thoughts to someone who did not want to hear or even contemplate them; someone who was willful and deliberate in rejection of my “truths” and denial of my “facts,” I eventually came to a place of forcing myself to agree to disagree with folks only for the purpose of a preserved but unreasonable relationship.
What about this refusal to hear from someone who seems afraid to hear?
Mormon Apostle Dallin Oaks has talked about a lack of reverence for someone in authority in an ecclesiastical sense.
Evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true. As Elder George F. Richards, President of the Council of the Twelve, said in a conference address in April 1947,
“‘When we say anything bad about the leaders of the Church, whether true or false, we tend to impair their influence and their usefulness and are thus working against the Lord and his cause.’ (In Conference Report, Apr. 1947, p. 24.)” (Address to Church Educational System teachers, Aug. 16, 1985.)
Somewhere in all this, a strange thing happened in the Mormon Corridor. Condemnation of dissent and disagreement with ecclesiastical authority somehow jumped from Church to include disagreement with State. Some kind of “one true and faithful political point of view” became the equivalent of Mormonism’s “true churchiness.”
One of the more revered fictional characters in the Book of Mormon is General Moroni
You can see it in any venue where opinions may be freely offered, read or heard. You could see it when Senator Bennett, a moderate and honorable Republican incumbent was voted out in favor of a radical tea-party type with much less substance, Mike Lee. It was obvious that aging Orrin Hatch could see the writing on the wall despite his blind and embarrassing loyalty to party over country.
Though I doubt that most practicing Mormons who consider themselves “conservative” in a way that even Barry Goldwater would have not recognized, the blind reverence for title and position are in place regardless of any other aspect of a man’s character – in this case the President of the United States.
It is not socialist or liberal influences that have conjured up knee-jerk labels such as “libs”, “libtards”, or the like, tossing them around like ketchup and mustard at a barbecue. It took me a long time to conjure up my own pejorative equivalent in the labelling business: “Maga-ites.”
I plead guilty.
Bottom line is that I no longer feel a spiritual kinship with friends and family connected to religion. Culture yes. Religion no. With on-going disputes on endless threads of comments, I see no progress being made and only further alienation.
It’s a sad loss but a real commentary on the state of polarization in which both points of view are so invested in being “right” that the investment itself is destructively wrong.