Guest Post: Patrick Mason, “God Bless America: Ezra Taft Benson’s Exceptionalist Patriotism”

By July 22, 2013

mason[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.)

BensonAlthough 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.[1]

Benson officeWhen 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.?

Benson bookMuch 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.?[2]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] Ezra Taft Benson, The Constitution:  A Heavenly Banner (Salt Lake City:  Deseret Book Co., 1986), 31, 33.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Politics


Comments

  1. Great post, Patrick. Thanks for posting!

    Do you see Benson’s later focus on the Book of Mormon as a contribution to his American exceptionalism or conservative politics? Or is it more of a situation where correlation does not equal causation?

    Comment by J Stuart — July 22, 2013 @ 9:37 am

  2. Unfortunately, one of President Benson’s foundational pillars, whether he understood it or not, for his patriotism was white supremacy. So much of Cold War and earlier American patriotism was predicated on whites having almost absolute dominance in society. There are no discussions in any of his speeches about civil rights or the rights of people of color, and he is known to have had an acute disdain for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights establishment Was he oblivious to people of color or did they complicate his vision of America so much that he choose simply to ignore their existence?

    Comment by Ignacio M. Garcia — July 22, 2013 @ 9:44 am

  3. Yes, great post, Patrick … and what a teaser for your biography of ETB!

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 22, 2013 @ 10:09 am

  4. Great stuff Patrick! I’m also interested in the answer to Ignacio’s question.

    I will continue to be amazed at the about face the Mormon culture has made from enemy of the state (1800s) to über-patriotic (today).

    Comment by Tod Robbins — July 22, 2013 @ 10:13 am

  5. This is great, Patrick. How much did J. Reuben Clark influence ETB’s thinking? What other early influences did he have?

    Comment by David G. — July 22, 2013 @ 11:41 am

  6. Thanks to Ben for inviting me to post this. And for the record, it wasn’t me who took the grape vines (which, by the way, are not faring well in their new home — a form of cosmic justice if there ever was one).

    J – We often associate Benson and the Book of Mormon in the 1980s, since that’s when he helped orchestrate such a profound cultural (and arguably theological) shift in Mormonism, based on his emphasis on the scripture and daily devotional reading of it. But Benson’s love for the Book of Mormon was hardly newfound. As far as I can tell, it was always his favorite book of scripture, and he quoted from it liberally throughout his life. He gave a number of sermons calling on members to pay more attention to it long before he became president of the Church, but it was only when he had that kind of institutional authority and gravitas that he had the ability to pull the whole church with him.

    Ignacio – You’re absolutely right, that Benson was not exactly on the front lines marching with Dr. King. He did talk about civil rights issues, but generally in the way that “moderate” southerners did. He often said that he had no personal prejudice, and he did travel the world and seemed to have a fairly cosmopolitan view of the peoples of the world. But like many white conservatives, he believed that the CRM was going too far too fast, and was at least infiltrated and probably directed by Communists. By the late 1960s he was associating politically with the likes of George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and the Citizens Councils. I think we need to apply the term “white supremacist” with real precision, defining exactly what we mean by it, because many people automatically equate it with the Klan, which would be wrong in Benson’s case. There were lots of shades of white resistance to civil rights activism, and while Benson was certainly quite conservative on those issues, he was not an extremist.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — July 22, 2013 @ 11:56 am

  7. David – Benson was a big fan of Clark’s writings on politics and the Constitution, and quoted him liberally (though perhaps that isn’t the right word to use!). Benson often said that his three great teachers were his uncle Serge, and Orson Whitney and David O. McKay (who he served under in the British Mission in the early 1920s). The McKay-Benson relationship is a fascinating one. Greg Prince did a great job of examining it from the McKay side, and I hope to do so from the Benson side.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — July 22, 2013 @ 11:59 am

  8. Thanks, Patrick. Really looking forward to your continuing work.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 22, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

  9. Patrick, I am looking forward to your biography/research on ETB. My father worked at the Dept. of Agriculture from 1940 through 1969 –was there before Pres. Benson and afterwards. What I recall growing up was my father had a respect for ETB but he persistently recoiled, as I recall, what he considered the demand by ETB that we should not theologically tolerate even the slightest degree of “socialism”—as he interpreted it and that he was quick to label others commies or socialists–even Pres. Eisenhower who was my father’s hero. My father also was bothered by what he considered ETB’s narrow-minded view of politics, economics and our theology as it related to seeing any fellow members that advocated the least amount of “socialism” as being on Satan’s side/errand. Does your research so far support my father’s personal/anecdotal assessment in any way? In fairness, my father was pleasantly surprised to see ETB as president of the church not carry into that office what my father considered strident political views.

    Comment by Ron Madson — July 23, 2013 @ 2:31 am

  10. And for what it is worth, here is my little satire on ETB’s strident anti-socialist ideology. What is funny is that I have a subset of facebook friends that are so into anti-socialism that they actually “liked” my post so I added a “Poe’s law alert at the beginning.”

    http://themormonworker.wordpress.com/2009/09/09/a-modest-proposal-to-end-socialism/

    Comment by Ron Madson — July 23, 2013 @ 2:34 am

  11. Very interesting. I look forward to the book.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 23, 2013 @ 9:39 am

  12. Ron, your father’s view of Benson does seem to ring true with what I’m finding in my research. Most pointedly in the 1960s, but in a substantial way throughout his life, Benson saw the liberal welfare state, socialism, and communism as different stripes of the same animal. He was given to slippery-slope arguments (hardly the only political or religious leader to do so), and he was genuinely worried that the adoption of “socialistic” policies in the United States was opening the door to communism and thus a loss of freedom. We have to remember that he wasn’t just making this stuff up — international communism was aggressive in the postwar decades, people under communist rule typically did lose freedoms (often violently), and there were active communists in the US government.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — July 23, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

  13. I would disagree with your use of the word “exceptionalist” patriotism. Br. Benson was into extremist patriotism. He was into fearmongering, destroying our faith in our democratic institutions, and he abused his position as a General Authority to do this. He left a mixed legacy in Washington, much of it bitter. Many members, in fact, wished he had never come to town.

    Comment by Aaron — July 24, 2013 @ 7:45 am

  14. Aaron: “exceptionalist,” in this context, is the belief that America was different and “set apart” from the rest of the world for a special mission, usually in a providentialist context.

    Comment by Ben P — July 24, 2013 @ 8:24 am

  15. […] and constitutional conservatism that developed in the wake of the Cold War era and that found embodiment in the person of Ezra Taft Benson remains a truism for some Latter-day Saints, many of whom embrace a scriptural literalism. A number […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormonism?s Possible Political Theologies: Reading the Constitution through a Lens of Continuing Revelation, Part I — July 30, 2013 @ 8:33 am

  16. Aaron would you please name all of your sources for the many members that wished he had never come to town? I find your comment sweeping and unsubstantiated as my I know personally politically active individuals that served around him and have nothing but respect for ETB and Mormons in general. And as far as the fear mongering – please let us know what is not true that he warned us of. I wish more Americans had listened closer to him and heeded the warnings.

    Comment by Shellie — August 2, 2013 @ 2:11 am

  17. Really looking forward to the bio. Thanks.

    Comment by Aaron B — August 9, 2013 @ 1:21 am


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