[Another installment in this month’s series on “Mormonism and Politics,” this post is authored by Patrick Mason. Patrick, a friend of and mentor to many on the blog, is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and his works include The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Post-Bellum South and (co-edited with David Pulsipher and Richard Bushman) War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives. He is currently working on a biography of Ezra Taft Benson and a book on Mormon peace ethics. More recent family hobbies, supposedly related to peace ethics, include sneaking onto his former property with shovels and garbage bags to dig up grape vines and other shrubbery.]
The 1950s was a heady time for God in America. Postwar enthusiasm and the fear of the surge of international “godless Communism” helped spark a national revival of religion, both privately and publicly. Billy Graham emerged not only as the nation’s top revivalist but also as one of its biggest celebrities. “In God We Trust” replaced the more secularly inflected “E Pluribus Unum” as the nation’s motto, and “under God” got plugged into the Pledge of Allegiance.
Dwight Eisenhower’s appointment of LDS apostle Ezra Taft Benson as Secretary of Agriculture both reflected and enhanced this national religious renewal. Among students of Mormon history, Benson is well known for his association with the virulently anticommunist and arch-conservative John Birch Society. Benson never formally joined the JBS, but his son Reed became a national coordinator for the society and Ezra publicly stated on many occasions the he was “convinced that The John Birch Society was the most effective non-church organization in our fight against creeping socialism and Godless Communism.” (The best current treatment of this is in Greg Prince’s Dialogue article, here.)
Although his encounter with the John Birch Society in 1961 was significant for Benson, and in many ways helped define him and his public work for at least the entire decade of the 1960s, Benson did not need JBS founder Robert Welch to tell him that communism was evil or that America was God’s country. (We sometimes forget that virtually everyone in America, John F. Kennedy included, was an ardent anticommunist during the Cold War.) It’s more accurate to say that the John Birch Society was something like the salt that brought out the natural flavoring already inherent in Benson’s makeup.
Indeed, if we rewind nearly a decade before Benson ever heard of the society—several years before JBS even existed, in fact—we see an Ezra Taft Benson whose ardent patriotism is itself an article of faith. In an address given to the BYU student body on December 1, 1952, immediately after he had accepted his Cabinet appointment (but about six weeks before the Eisenhower administration would begin), Benson spoke on the relationship between the LDS Church and politics.
When Eisenhower approached him about the job, Benson immediately offered several objections, including the fact that he had supported Ike’s opponent in the Republican primary. But one of Ike’s clinching arguments came when he told the apostle, “Surely you believe that the job to be done is spiritual. Surely you know that we have the great responsibility to restore confidence in the minds of our people in their own government – that we’ve got to deal with spiritual matters.” Eisenhower thus framed government service as service to God, an argument that Benson would embrace whole-hog. This helped him assuage any doubts he may have had about securing a leave of absence from his full duties as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as he was simply temporarily exchanging one high-level calling from God for another.
In his address to the BYU students, Benson outlined some of his core principles. Central to his worldview was the inviolable and unmatched sanctity of the God-given principle of freedom of choice. For Benson, everything began with and came back to this one principle. It would come to define his political philosophy, his economic philosophy, and his religious philosophy. It also defined his patriotism. He would travel to dozens of nations during his time as Secretary, but his worldview had already been shaped by his mission to Europe in 1946, where he oversaw LDS relief and humanitarian efforts, and where he personally witnessed both the devastation of war and the slow retreat of freedom behind the lowering Iron Curtain.
To the BYU students, he proclaimed, “It’s a great blessing to live in America. It’s a great blessing to have the opportunity to enjoy the freedoms which are ours today. I have seen people, thousands of them, who have lost the freedom which is ours. . . . I’d rather be dead than lose my liberty. . . . When our system is criticized, just keep in mind the fruits of the system, the great blessings that have come to us because of our American way of life.”
Much of Benson’s love for and faith in the divine mission and millennial destiny of America came from the Book of Mormon, a text he returned to time and again throughout his life. He cited Book of Mormon passages about America being a “choice land” in every possible forum, from General Conference addresses to agricultural stump speeches to personal memos to President Eisenhower. Standing at the apex of the long Latter-day Saint tradition of sacralizing America, Benson often expressed his conviction that the Constitution of the United States was a “sacred document,” its words “akin to the revelations of God.” He was certain that “when the Lord comes, the Stars and Stripes will be floating on the breeze over this people.”
The United States of America was not perfect, Benson conceded—the “creeping socialism” of the New Deal had eroded the sure foundations of the constitutional republic—but it was an essential part of God’s perfect plan for His children. But no Saint ever had to apologize for being a true-hearted American. God had indeed blessed America, and to honor the nation and its founding principles was to honor God.
Ezra Taft Benson was hardly the first nor the only Mormon to be an American exceptionalist or conservative constitutionalist. But perhaps more than any other single individual, he solidified a “special relationship” between twentieth-century Mormonism and the nation, a relationship that he alone, by virtue of both his high ecclesiastical and public office, was in a position to broker, and which no one championed more loudly, publicly, and sometimes controversially, than he did, for nearly half a century.
 Ezra Taft Benson, “The L.D.S. Church and Politics,” Brigham Young University devotional address, Dec. 1, 1952; typescript in L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, BYU. This address is one of many Benson speeches that have been given new life on the internet by LDS conservatives; for instance here.
 Ezra Taft Benson, The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1986), 31, 33.