The LDS Church and its leadership counsel members to participate in the political process according to the dictates of their own conscience. Because of this, members of the Church the world over belong to a wide range of political parties and adhere to a wide range of political ideologies. Even left-wing movements, such as socialist and labor parties, can claim Latter-day Saint supporters in many of the nations of the world. However, in the United States, Mormon culture has developed a noticeably right wing and anti-socialist position, using societal pressure to limit, denounce, or suppress the expression of leftist viewpoints within the community.
This can partly be attributed to the fact that leftist political opinions, parties, and movements have often been suppressed in our nation’s history. Because of this, most Americans today lack basic knowledge of socialism and its many forms, branches, and political philosophies. To the average American, the word “socialism” conjures images of Soviet Russia, China, and North Korea. The majority of Americans would be surprised to learn that first world nations such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Spain and France could be labeled socialist to some extent, yet often surpass the U.S. in standard of living and democratic participation.
For the large majority of Latter-day Saints in the U.S. however, no form of success under socialism can ever do away with the words of a Prophet, and there is one Prophet in particular whose words are drawn upon to denounce socialism. That Prophet was President Ezra Taft Benson. In the Church, it is almost impossible to discuss such topics as universal healthcare, welfare services for low-income citizens and their families, government housing, Social Security, or regulation of the markets without be challenged by someone quoting President Benson and his political opinions.
The most troubling thing to a member of the Church who leans to the left politically, is that President Benson’s political opinions and a large number of those who accept them as the words of God, convey the message that anyone who disagrees is either being duped by Satan himself, is on the road to apostasy, or has already apostatized and is not to be considered a “true” saint. Often, it is so troubling and such a point of contention, that members feel isolated among their own people and eventually leave the Church. Ironically, the polarizing effect of President Benson’s political rhetoric has been a dividing force among Latter-day Saints since it came forth from his mouth.
I should stop here to note that from here on out I will no longer refer to President Benson as President Benson in this article, except when I am referring to him during the time when he was in fact President. You see, the overwhelming majority of Benson’s polarizing political comments, talks and teachings were given long before he ever became President of the Church. In other words, they were given when he was Elder Benson, before the mantel of the First Presidency rested upon his shoulders.
Despite the fact that Church members vehemently devoted to sanctifying right-wing political philosophies endlessly quote Benson, being sure to add that they are “the words of a Prophet of God,” Benson was not in fact the Prophet of God at the time. However, my point is not that Benson was Elder Benson and not President Benson at the time he gave such talks as “The Proper Role of Government.” My point is that Benson’s political views and rhetoric never had the unanimous support of Church leadership. In fact, more often than not, they upset Church leaders, caused division among the membership, brought embarrassment to the Church, and resulted in Benson being chastised.
In 1974, for example, Benson famously told an interviewer who was interviewing him as a prominent Republican and political figure, that it would be difficult for a member of the Church to be a Democrat if they knew and understood the gospel. Of course, at the time this was said, a Democrat by the name of Marion G. Romney was Second Counselor in the First Presidency. Just 4 years earlier, Democrat Hugh B. Brown was First Counselor in the First Presidency, having filled the position previously held by Democrat J. Reuben Clark. This caused a major uproar within the Church, not only because it hinted that First Presidency members did not know and understand the gospel, but a large portion of Church members were Democrats at the time, this being years before Benson’s political opinions soaked into Mormon culture and put a damper on the progressive spirit among the membership.
Elder Benson was also chastised on several occasions by Church leadership for having inappropriately used Church buildings, Church meetings, and his callings as Stake President and later Apostle, to promote his political views. For instance, in 1962, Elder Benson gave permission for a stake center in Los Angeles to be used by the Republican Party and its candidate for California State Governor, Richard Nixon. Once President David O. McKay learned of it, he was forced to also give permission to the Democratic candidate, Pat Brown, in order for the Church to remain politically neutral. In a letter sent to all stakes shortly after the incident, President McKay noted that the Church was opposed to the idea of a chapel used for the sacrament and religious meetings to also be used for political gain, also noting that those attempts to do so did the Church a disservice.
Unfortunately, Benson continued to ignore counsel, chastisement, and disciplinary action from Church leadership. When he was called to serve in Europe as a Mission President, many looked at the call as the Church’s way of dealing with the problem. This view gains credibility when we consider what Church leaders at the time had to say about Benson, his political rhetoric, and his misuse of his calling to give his opinions the appearance of Church authority. For example, on the day his father met with Benson to tell him he was being sent to Europe, President McKay’s son sent a letter to Congressman Ralph Harding. In the letter he said, “We shall all be relieved when Elder Benson ceases to resist counsel and returns to a concentration on those affairs befitting his office.”
Such statements and frustration with Benson’s political rhetoric and his involvement with the conservative and anti-socialist Birch Society also appear in the private correspondence of Church leaders. Two weeks after McKay’s son wrote Congressman Harding, Joseph Fielding Smith, who was President of the Quorum of the Twelve at the time, also sent a letter to Harding; “I think it is time Brother Benson forgot all about politics and settled down to his duties as a member of the Council of the Twelve…It would be better for him and for the Church and all concerned, if he would settle down to his present duties and let all political matters take their course. He is going to take a mission to Europe in the near future and by the time he returns I hope he will get all the political notions out of his system.” In the letter, President Smith also expressed distaste for the Birch Society and Benson’s involvement with it, adding “I am glad to report that it will be some time before we hear anything from Brother Benson, who is now on his way to Great Britain where I suppose he will be, at least for the next two years.”
Distaste for Benson’s political rhetoric seems to have been strongly felt by First Counselor to President McKay, Hugh B. Brown. After Elder Benson was sent to Europe, Brown received a letter from U.S. Under-Secretary of State W. Averill Harriman asking how long Ezra Taft Benson would be outside the United States. President Brown’s response was a short but telling one, “If I had my way, he’ll never come back!”
By bringing these things to light, it is not my intention to soil President Benson’s image. He was in a fact a great man, a great Prophet, and was intensely devoted to the Church throughout his life. To the dismay of many Church leaders, Benson continued to insert his personal political views into his calling and talks even after his return from Europe, but when he later became President of the Church, he took the calling very seriously and seldom mentioned politics in Church settings again. Unfortunately for American Mormon culture however, Benson’s views have become commonplace among members in the United States. Benson’s McCarthy era anti-socialist opinions have been drawn upon widely to give the impression that the Church and God himself are opposed not only to communism, but any form of socialism, progressivism, and pretty much anything that is not firmly on the right of the political spectrum. Right-wing bloggers, and even right-wing Fox News host Glenn Beck have drawn upon the words of Benson in an attempt to move the nation further to the right.
When President Benson passed away, Gordon B. Hinckley gave a talk called "Farewell to a Prophet" to commemorate President Benson. In the talk, Hinckley made this comment:
"I am confident that it was out of what he saw of the bitter fruit of dictatorship that he developed his strong feelings, almost hatred, for communism and socialism. That distaste grew through the years as he witnessed the heavy-handed oppression and suffering of the peoples of Eastern Europe under what he repeatedly described as godless communism."
To me, Hinckley seems to be making it clear that Benson's distaste for socialism and communism was his own personal opinion, and also that this grew out of Benson's experiences specifically with Soviet style communism and its interpretation of socialism in Eastern Europe, not socialism as it appears in democratic countries like it is found in the industrialized European nations and Canada.
Unlike Benson’s less popular views, his outdated cold-war era political rhetoric seems to have stuck. Perhaps it’s because much of Benson’s political rhetoric was taught from the pulpit. We as members should ask ourselves, does that sanctify them? Is it the location that matters? After all, erroneous teachings such as those regarding blacks and the priesthood, the use of face cards, and the use of birth control were all being taught from the pulpit at the time Benson’s political views were being disseminated. Is it the person who speaks that matters? After all, Benson was a Church Elder and later became a Prophet. While giving due weight to the words of wise men, we should never forget that it is not the opinions and philosophies of a man that we revere, it is the Spirit speaking through that man.
Throughout our Church’s history, Prophets have reminded us that a Prophet is a man like any other. He is subject to limited understanding, personal opinion, and to error. Were it not so, we would also have to accept Benson’s less popular opinions; that Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist and that the civil rights movement a communist conspiracy, for instance.
We should never forget that it is not the opinions and philosophies of a man that we revere, it is the Spirit speaking through that man. Prophets are not robots; God has still blessed them with the qualities and experiences of human life. This means that as long as men are called to fulfill such callings as Prophet, we can expect them to be subject to limited understanding, personal opinion, and erroneous beliefs. Recognizing when that man speaks by the power of the Holy Ghost and when he does not, that is what we should be focusing on, not that man’s position.
Personally, I believe that the ongoing controversy that Ezra Taft Benson's political opinions have created within the Church also illustrates the wisdom of the Church's position regarding Church leaders simultaneously holding political office. In the late 1800's, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve decided that no member in a high-ranking Church leadership position could run for political office without the consent of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency. This Church policy still stands today, Benson himself having had to request consent from the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve before accepting his post as Secretary of Agriculture under President Eisenhower. This Church policy is best known for nearly causing B.H. Roberts to leave the Church, he feeling that it was not the Church's business whether he ran for political office or not. However, I think the wisdom behind the First Presidency and the Twelve's decision becomes clear when we see what happens to the political opinions of someone who is a political figure and a Church leader simultaneously. As in the case of Ezra Taft Benson, a Church leader who is also a political figure can potentially mislead the membership into believing that personal political opinions are sanctioned and endorsed by the Church itself. The Church seems to have learned this lesson with all the contention, disunity and controversy caused by Benson's mixing his political calling and his civil service, and it is very likely this is the reason prominent LDS political figures, such as Mitt Romney and Harry Reid, are not called to hold high level Church leadership positions while serving in a political capacity.
I know that many reading this may have already experienced cultural pressure and feelings of not fitting in due to the sometimes overpowering conservative sentiment among the membership in the United States. Perhaps someone has used the words of Ezra Taft Benson as a weapon to make you feel as though you are not a “true” saint. If you feel this way, or if you sometimes feel this way, remember, if agreeing with Benson’s political views was a requirement for true sainthood, as some would have us believe, than the list of “phony” saints would include such prominent Church figures as Joseph Fielding Smith, David O. McKay and Hugh B. Brown, among many others. However, I do not believe God is a partisan. I also believe that learning about the world around us, studying and evaluating what works and what does not in improving the lives of our brothers and sisters here on Earth is a worthy venture, no matter what political ideology it may hail from.