Ezra Taft Benson and the Making of the Mormon Right (Matt Harris) – Part 1 | Ep. 1350

Ezra Taft Benson is perhaps the most controversial apostle-president in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For nearly fifty years he delivered impassioned sermons in Utah and elsewhere, mixing religion with ultraconservative right-wing political views and conspiracy theories. His teachings inspired Mormon extremists to stockpile weapons, predict the end of the world, and commit acts of violence against their government. The First Presidency rebuked him, his fellow apostles wanted him disciplined, and grassroots Mormons called for his removal from the Quorum of the Twelve. Yet Benson was beloved by millions of Latter-day Saints, who praised him for his stances against communism, socialism, and the welfare state, and admired his service as secretary of agriculture under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Using previously restricted documents from archives across the United States,

Matthew L. Harris breaks new ground as the first to evaluate why Benson embraced a radical form of conservatism, and how under his leadership Mormons became the most reliable supporters of the Republican Party of any religious group in America.

Matthew L. Harris is professor of history at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He is the author of The Mormon Church and Blacks: A Documentary History and editor of Thunder from the Right: Ezra Taft Benson in Mormonism and Politics. Matthew’s new book can be purchased here.

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  1. I am a flaming liberal that was born in 1964 so I was on the tail end of Benson’s career. I remember in HS thinking that I would have a terrible time supporting ETB if he were to ever ascend to the presidency. When that happened, I was pleasantly surprised that he seemed to leave his wakco politics in the past. Yes, there was the “mothers must stay at home” nonsense but that was no more offensive than the other nonsense spewed by his fellow apostles.

    At the time I attributed that to the wisdom of God. As a hard-core atheist I now attribute that to a highly-developed self-preservation gene that GA’s have!

  2. Brad Christenson

    I was born in SLC in 1958 to a mother quite critical of the Mormon church. She was also the secretary for the Democratic party in the early to mid 60s. (there must have been at least 3 Utah democrats to have a secretary assuming a president and a vice president) In those days the voting pole was always in our house. My sister and I always got in trouble for playing hide and seek in the voting booths but what else were children supposed to do.
    I joined the church at 20 years old in 1979 much to my mother’s disappointment. In those days if deemed necessary from past experience one would have to be interviewed by a General Authority to get permission to go on a mission. I went down to the church administration building and was interviewed by Ezra Taft Benson. I found him very engaging and kind during the hour or so I sat with him.
    After, when I told my mother about my experience she was infuriated. She told me stories about his politics that I just couldn’t reconcile with my short encounter with him. I read about his support of Joseph McCarthy and all that garbage about communism. I remember trying to reconcile in my mind these two images I had. I remember distinctly saying in my mission farewell I felt he was kind based on his experience serving Jesus, but I could never agree with his politics. As a 61-year-old Utah Democrat that has lost my faith, I guess I haven’t had to think or agree with anything about him for many years.
    I haven’t listened to nor contributed to Mormon Stories for a few years because I start to own the hurt of all the great and brave people who share their stories. It is painful for me. I was told of this specific podcast and glad I was.
    Thank you, Dr. Harris, for your great scholarship on this very interesting subject to me. I have purchased the book, but I want to read it this second and it isn’t available for Kindle – so I will practice patience since it won’t be shipped for a month or two. I can’t believe I sat here until the wee hours 4 A.M. listening to 5 hours – Fascinating. Glad I am retired and could sleep in. I only wish my mother were around to discuss it with me. Very engaging Dr Dehlin and Dr. Harris. Thank you. I have a model of contributing to podcast I consume, so I will dust off my card and send some Mormon Stories money. Well worth it. Thanks for all of your hard work both of you.

  3. Jeremy Christiansen

    Loved this episode. You mentioned a book in this episode. Was there a book that espouses QAnon conspiracy theories at the last general conference? Thanks for all you do.

  4. Robert Welch was an insane conspiracy theorist and racists. That does not turn Matt Harris’s historical falsehoods and error about other topics into truths.

    Stanley Levinson was the chief financial officer of the Stalin/Soviet controlled & finances Communist Party of American up until 1957. Levison began closely working with Martin Luther King, Jr. prior to cutting ties with the Soviets. JFK personally told King to cut ties with Levison. King promised to do so, but lied to JFK. Levison helped write King’s “I Have a Dream” . This is all public record, from the FBI field and from countless books and articles. Matt Harris gives a completely false and error filled account of this topic of King and American communists.

    Just the tip of the iceberg of historical errors, misleading claims, and false information from Harris in his distorted and unbalanced narrative presented to you and listeners.

    Truth and the facts matter no matter what the topic, I love Mormon Stories because of its commitment to search out the truth. Matt Harris’s error filled narrative does not meet the high standards I admire so much from Mormon Stories.

  5. I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, I was quite familiar with the radical leanings of Elder Benson. My Father was a U.S. Army Intelligence Officer and an academic expert in U.S. Right-Wing Extremist Groups. My Father subscribed to newsletters, newspapers, and magazines of these groups to monitor their dogma and activities. My Father was a devout and active Latter-Day Saint. He became alarmed because Elder Benson would give talks not just to the John Birch Society, but also to other radical right-wing extremist groups. Some of these groups presented Elder Benson awards and certificates and would have pictures and articles about him on their printed media. What concerned my Father, is that some of these groups were white supremist, anarchist, supported terrorism, and some called for the violent overthrow of the U.S. Government. My Father believed that Benson, may have not known how extremist some these groups were and they were taking advantage of him. Also, he did not want the LDS Church associated with any of these radical groups.

    My Dad wrote a letter, voicing his concerns, to Elder Hugh B Brown, a member of the First Presidency. He also attached copies of some of the pictures and articles. Elder Brown responded to my Father’s letter. Brown wrote that he was concerned about Elder Benson’s political activities and thanked my Father for this new information. He said he would inform President David O. McKay about this. He also asked my Father to please keep this confidential and to not share it with anyone.

  6. Small clarification about kansas demographics. State black popluation 6.1%
    kansas city kansas 23.5% black

    Utah 1.5%. SLC 2.5%. Corlorado 4%.

  7. Unfortunately MLK did have association with Communists. Americans forget [Greg Ransom excluded] somehow conveniently that there was a real and at some point in time strong Communist Party in the US. They not only helped the African American community to organize but also helped them with cultural activities. Dr. King usually took the attitude of getting help from anybody that could help his plight. Some folks in the Jewish Community were at least Socialists. Other were members of the Communist Party as well. The Jewish Community helped the African American Community in their effort to get the Civil Rights amendments on board, teaching organization skills and eventually with bodies on the line . That is a well documented story here in ‘Lanta. The Jewish Community did this in an effort to create a more just or rather a more balanced environment for ALL minorities, including them. Many in the organized labor movement benefitted from the lessons taught by the Communist Party. Although the ultimate goal of Communism is to control all labor and production in a given country, I’m of the opinion that here in the US that option would unavoidably have reached a balance between Entrepreneurs and labor. Some of the more hardline African Americans organizations simply thought that they were citizens with all the obligations, including going off to war, without the benefits. Thru the 70’s the situation improved but as we know, slowly. The genius of Elder Benson[and others] during his tenure in Washington was the steps he took to create a narrative thru public policy that lives up to today. The Pledge of allegiance did not mention God before late 50’s. Today, Jeremy, Etzio, Mateo and Elanni [ my American family] will repeat the work of The Architect in their youth and will believe whatever script is taught to them. They may eventually be even members of the Church, or perhaps not. In some places, from a distance, it would appear that the issue is the relative parochiality of Church members. Whether by design as some here would argue or by simply physical location ,whereby a closed community is formed by numbers. And these communities come in all colors. Elder Benson [to whom I affectionally call The Architect ] had HIS community and Sunstone has theirs. A bit more of communication is probably what the other Architect orders.

  8. I had a Bircher roommate in college, he would always brag that Reed Benson and ET Benson supported his cause. When questioned about Eisenhower as a communist spy, he would always claim he had read and prayed about it and the spirit told him it was true.

    I did manage to read the entire “naked communist” by Skousen, and was rather disappointed in how lame it was, a rambling, poorly written nothing burger.

    Later I was truly shocked they had made Benson the big Kahuna of mormotopia. But it was funny to hear ETB yack on about another lame, rambling, poorly written nothing burger called the book of mormon.

  9. Okay, and hear me out on this guys, what if John Dehlin…is the ultimate spy for the Church? I mean consider his lineage, his committment to morality despite being outside the Church, his fair and balanced approach? Just saying… He’s gathering all of our emails, names, and getting to know us, etc. As Lenin said, “The best way to control the opposition is to lead it ourselves.”
    Or maybe John’s not a spy. I don’t know. It just hit me.
    Love you John

  10. My father always taught me that God would never allow Ezra Taft Benson to become the president of the Church. I’ve visited my dad’s grave but I am not able to determine if my father turned over in his grave.

  11. E t b the man ,was just a man ,as all of the l d s presidents have been ,they are the sum total of their experiences. As are we . It is regrettable that most every prophet ,of the last 100 years ,have missed on social issues and other tug of war issues that have brought us to a trump presidency. it’s absolutely incredible how Important the l d s people feel their leaders are ,and yet the most powerful Mormon political figure ever was Harry Reid .a person who single handedly unbuttoned the other most powerful Mormon political person mitt Romney. As a people the slander of Romney by Ried set us back a very long way ,yet we would choose Nancy and fienstien who have bankrupted California and handed that state to a lawless and mis directed majority .this interview was particularly disturbing in reference to the condemning of everything and everyone who is not squarely on the left . It’s a slash and burn torching of the garden. rather than the pruning that would have delivered a balance back .e t b had a fear of the radical left because he seen first hand in Europe what happens when you rely on left leaning government s . it paves the way for a despot like Adolph. To swing in grab some traction and wala you have a genicide all for national superiority . Mr Harris has done a great job of framing mr Benson and every other product of the conservative right, as criminal malcontents hell bent on seeing the total destruction of the garden all to prove their fear was justified. I believe this fear on his part , fear in humankind leads us to justification. Justification leads us to war and killing the main point of the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament ,it is ripe in the Koran .fear is the one thing Christ did not preach in his ministry and he did not preach from a superior position. Mr Harris makes some great points but he is hiding behind the left . And He is justifying all that Hillary and Barack tried to do to overturn the last election. Don’t. The will of the people was made clear in 2016 and no matter how you slice it mr trump just might win again . The days of Harry and mitt are past . It’s too bad when Mormonism and the priesthood was on full display Harry justified lying while mitt could not defend himself because of his shame for the little bit of conservatism he espoused . Shame and fear are always front and center in herding mindless masses . I’m just an uneducated dummy who has observed this happening throughout my life .I was raised in an ultra conservative home, we prayed for our prophet we prayed for carter we prayed equally for Reagan now I pray for everyone. Unity and the common good have been replaced in the political arena . an arena Joseph smith would have done well to avoid . but Christ’s crusifiction was done out of fear . Fear of change . Mr Harris find something good to say about any conservative and publish it go on I dare you . It’s not as easy as it looks . turning the telescope around is not easy . And don’t try to convince me that hatch or flake were ever conservative. They acted mostly out of fear in their political careers . That’s a cowboys take on the goings on at the sale yard . The bad thing about it is the sale yard is the last place we will find ourselves before slaughter house. Whoops there is the fear

  12. This interview was super interesting on many levels. Politics and religion are two of my favorite subjects (I’m an impolite dinner guest in some circles ;)).

    Very little about Mormonism has really gotten under my skin in a long time. I’ve been resigned from the LDS Church for well over a decade. But the revelation that then Elder Benson seriously pursuing the idea of running on a ticket with Strom Thurmond or George Wallace in the 1960s or 1970s really bothers me. What those men were about, especially in those days, was nothing short of pure evil. The realization that I was brought up in primary and my early years of the Aaronic priesthood to revere this guy as a prophet of God really puts a knot in my stomach.

    I thought this filled in a lot of the context for the ideas floating around in the minds of my elders when I was a child and teen. Of course, we start to see these zombie ideas rising from the dead with Glenn Beck, preppers, etc. Matt Harris does an excellent job of contextualizing these elements of Mormon history in broader themes of American and global history. That deserves a shout-out because Mormon themes are often discussed in a siloed way that doesn’t give much account to other connected events and trends outside Mormonism. Here we see Mormonism shaping, and being shaped by, the broader culture.

    Excellent interview (both parts). Kudos to Matt and John for an great discussion.

  13. I’m listening now and reading the book. I’m right at the moment in the podcast discussing if Benson was anti-Semitic. I served my mission in Maryland about 20 years ago. I met many evangelicals that were pro Israel and such. However they did not do it as friends. They saw the more Jews you packed into Israel and supported the sooner Armageddon would come and thus the second coming. They were self interested and to them it was sending worthless lambs to the slaughter. This came up with a Jewish person I met and they thought largely Jews took the support and help and laughed that the evangelicals were sending them to start Armageddon. A small stretch but think of briar rabbit not wanting to be thrown into the briar patch.

    I do not know if this is how Benson was, but it is a possibility for how you can be pro Israel and anti-Semitic.

    As to civil rights having ties to communism and socialism. I always thought white people could stop being racists and then there is no longer a division for enemies to leverage. It would also be the decent thing to do. Of course white privileged capitalists don’t see that as a solution, cause then the problem is them and not black people.

  14. I really appreciate how Dehlin’s interview format allows Matt to go much deeper than in other podcasts where he has been a guest. Since I grew up during the 60’s & 70s, I find this discussion quite fascinating.

  15. Born in 1958. I remember as a teenager listening to all of the general authorities of that era. I remember accepting the premise that a prophet led the church and, therefore, what the prophet said, what the apostles said, what ETB said was what God would say. I decided to dig up and read some of the old 1960s talks by Benson. All of these years later, the curtain is parted and one can see it plainly…..just men acting as all men in power act…no evidence of guidance by a diety.

  16. I only listened to a few minutes, but since most of my life since baptism and dropping out of the church is based on a lot of Benson’s words, I will listen more. In 1970, I listened and recorded the general conference where ETB told members to read 4 books, which I purchased plus a case of one on conspiracy. That was the year I joined the Church and became a member of the JBS. I was a chapter leader and had all the books of the library in my home in SE Idaho.. From then on wherever I lived I was either a JBS member or just a radical. In one stake, our president asked me to present a filmstrip program by ETB called “Man. Freedom, and Government to a large priesthood group..

    I no longer believe in all those conspiracies but I understand so much of them still today. They can suck a person in just like the church did me.

  17. So I heard l.Tom perry describe the moment when the priesthood ban was lifted. He said he was in the temple with the other brethren in prayer and a great rushing of wind said the voice of god could be felt. Then the president rose and said that he had heard the voice of the lord and then the blacks could get the priesthood. …. sounds like this was just a miracle after the fact to prove the truth of something. Perry told me this story on my mission in 2009

  18. The notion of Eisenhower being “soft on communism” may to some extent have been informed by his service as Supreme Allied Commander primarily having been under the Roosevelt Administration, which had maintained a particularly friendly relationship with “Uncle Joe”. When the war was over it was Britain’s Labour government under Attlee as PM and Bevin as Foreign Secretary who were foremost in warnings of the USSR’s ambitions. Churchill’s speech at Fulton Missouri in March 1946, with President Harry Truman sitting beside him, in which he spoke of an “Iron Curtain” hanging across Europe, was given with Attlee’s knowledge and understanding, as an attempt by Britain to get the message across. That, and the famous Kennan “long telegram” in February, where the US Chargé D’Affaires in Moscow presented Washington with danger signals, woke the US to the fact that Stalin was perhaps not as benign a fellow as Roosevelt may have taken him to be. Eisenhower, admirable diplomat that he was, and notwithstanding his having won the Korean war, may never completely have overcome his association with FDR. And this may well have been what Benson and the John Birchers were feeding upon.

  19. Larry Ballard

    Just a thought. We have two words that in modern society seem to be linked as if the first word has never and currently is not possible to exist. That phrase is “conspiracy theory.” Now I am not a member of the John Birch society. But I have attended numerous of their meetings and read the history of John Birch and what the Chinese communists did to him. I am a pocked lay historian and have read a lot of history as a passion. What I would suggest is that there is not only such a thing as “conspiracy”, but that conspiracy is the norm. I would also ask a question. Was it a conspiracy when the Bolshevic revolution deleted the Czars and instituted the Communist political philosophy. This was done by force….no questions asked let alone allowed. And China? Did Mao and his ilk simply persuade the populace to try out Communism? Or, was it brought to them with lies and force? When I first read the book set The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it became all to obvious that the government was one wave of conspirators overcoming the established order over and over and over ad infinitum. After studying what Mao and Stalin did to destroy the concept of individual freedom, I read a little squirrely Italian communist by the name of Antonio Gramsci. He was imprisoned most of his life in a prison in Sicily by Mussolini. He is pivotal in the desire of this political proposition that effected a change from the in the streets riotous revolution by force and violence to a more efficient form of subterfuge or a Trojan Horse approach. This is noticed from the overt change in tone from Khruschev in your face “we will bury you” rhetoric to the Perestroika of Gorbachev. The proposition that Communism as a political philosophy would change to a more efficient and effective tactic and conspire to take over America in this fashion just because it is being put forward in a John Birch fashion should not be a constricting factor in a scholastic historian from forming a judgment too soon and limit further study in to this possibility. I would suggest that my studies indicate that Antonio Gramsci and his revolutionary approach was indeed a factor in the morphing of the Communist approach to hegemony. I can understand the judgments being made regarding Ezra’s approach based on the research done so far. And I am certainly not endorsing or supporting his total message. I would suggest that there are aspects of the Communist agenda that a little more historical analysis might euphemize the judgment if you are willing to dive back into the conceptual phase and consider Antonio and the overall history of Communism.

  20. I am/maybe was a huge fan of ETB for his political views (ok, ok, I was young) … I almost joined LDS church because of him … I still find him fascinating and so few people know how influential he was well beyond the church.

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