Friday, August 24, 2012

Rock Center rocks Mormons

The August 23, 2012 edition of NBC’s Rock Center program was an hour devoted to the Mormon Church. The first Mormon ever to be nominated as a candidate for president is about to become the official party flag-bearer next week. NBC figured the public wanted to know about the most successful “American religion.”

My wife and I dropped out of the LDS Church when we were teenagers. Even though we are now outside the culture we still live around Mormons. We possess enough knowledge to see into the culture. I found the NBC program to be non-critical, just laying some basic groundwork on the origins of the church (the Joseph Smith “golden plates”-to-Book of Mormon story), and then interviewing some Latter-day Saints about their lives.

That’s where it got tricky, because these LDS people interviewed weren’t typical. Reporters talked to a mixed-race couple — white wife, black husband; they interviewed two gay men, one of whom has dropped out of the church, one of whom is still active; they talked to a devout LDS wife and mom who is critical of the church’s view of women’s roles; they talked to a former governor’s daughter whose marriage to a non-Mormon caused her to drop out of the church. They showed rich Mormons, like the man who founded Jet Blue Airlines. They didn’t talk to any of my LDS neighbors, who are what we locally think of as Mormons: married, working class straights with several kids.

 Former Utah governor (and presidential candidate) Jon Huntsman’s daughter, Abby, and husband Jeff Livingston. She says the opposition to her marrying a non-Mormon is her reason for dropping out of the church.

The program mentioned, but glossed over, what demands the church puts on the time of its faithful. Years ago I read an article on why the LDS Church is successful with a lay clergy. They test devotion by the amount of work a member is willing to do gratis. And that time spent in church jobs can impact the very family life they so jealously protect by fighting off perceived threats like gay marriage.

The program showed parts of the church’s welfare system, which is high tech, and works very well. The LDS Church does relief efforts in other countries hit by disasters, and likewise in our country during natural disasters. It also provides emergency welfare for its members.

But the program didn’t address Mormon politics. In Utah, as close to a theocratic state as we have in America, the politics are Republican, and not just Republican, but right-wing, and not just right-wing, but far right-wing. It’s not hard to understand why. The welfare system I mentioned in the last paragraph came about during the Great Depression of the 1930s because church leaders did not like Franklin D. Roosevelt, or any of the New Deal programs.

In the fifties Ezra Taft Benson, later president of the LDS Church, was appointed to be Secretary of Agriculture by President Eisenhower. After Benson left office he was brought into the church’s hierarchy, and ascended eventually to become Church President and prophet. He was president from 1985 until his death in 1994. Politically Benson was a right-wing extremist.
Benson was an outspoken opponent of communism and socialism, and supporter, but not a 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." 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 Mormons read Gary Allen's New World Order tract “None Dare Call it A Conspiracy” [sic].

-    Wikipedia

One of Benson’s most infamous quotes is a precursor to the current rabidly anti-Democrat politics of the Mormon faithful:
In February 1974 Apostle Ezra Taft Benson [he wasn’t president yet, but words of apostles carry a lot of weight with Mormons]  was asked during an interview if a good Mormon could also be a liberal Democrat. Benson pessimistically replied: ‘I think it would be very hard if he was living the gospel and understood it.’

-    John Heinerman and Anson Shule, The Mormon Corporate Empire, p. 142
His words didn’t stop Scott M. Matheson, the Democratic candidate for governor in 1976, from winning. Matheson took over from Calvin Rampton, a Democrat who had been governor since 1964. But the seeds of that quote from Benson were planted, and years later I overheard a conversation between two of my bosses as to whom their vote would go. “Not a Democrat,” said one, and then quoted Benson.

Since 1984 there has not been a Democratic governor in Utah. We have one Democratic congressman, Scott Matheson’s son, Jim, and most of the time he votes with Republicans.

The good news in all of this is that despite Utah Republicans love for Mitt Romney (“He's one of us!”) Utah is a state with few electoral votes. We don’t have the population to swing an election.

NBC News did as good a job as I could have expected with their report, but it was  of necessity cursory, and participants were chosen for their non-typical, even colorful, Mormon status. No one I saw on that program was a typical Mormon, like I have known, worked and lived alongside for over fifty years.

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