Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Milking the right-wing politics with Ezra Taft Benson

Ezra Taft Benson was the 13th President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also called Mormons or LDS), from 1985-1994. He was old when he died, 94 years of age. (I just read that the average age of LDS leadership is now 80.)

This incredible picture of Benson was taken in the 1950s when Benson’s job was Secretary of Agriculture for the Eisenhower administration. Born on a farm in Idaho, Benson had the qualifications for the job. He was very influential in government policies that are still being practiced today.

Although gone now for twenty years, Benson represents for me the power of church leadership in determining the faithful’s secular activities. Like politics. He was a Republican, and not just a Republican, but a right-wing Republican, even in a period when Republicans were much more moderate than they are now. Benson was affiliated with the right-wing group, the John Birch Society. He promoted that group’s political agenda, even while serving as a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Sometimes members of the LDS church listen to highly placed church authorities as if they were speaking for God. By the time men like Benson become members of the Quorum of the Twelve they are obviously well-versed in church beliefs and doctrine, but also policies. Officially, they are not allowed to tell church members for whom to vote, and it is made clear to them. No stumping for candidates from the pulpit, in other words. I believe Benson stepped over the line of official church political neutrality when asked for his opinion on Democrats. And because of his status as an apostle, church members’ ears perked up. 
In February 1974 Apostle Ezra Taft Benson 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
Since that quote was widely distributed in the 1970s the normally moderate Utah Republican Party has been taken over by the radical right, and while it would not be politically wise to quote apostle-before-he-became-church-president-Benson during debates on public policy in the legislature, what Benson said over 40 years ago is understood, and is deep in the bosom of the true believers. Its philosophy rules today’s Utah Republican party.

A recent poll conducted by one of the local television news organizations asked Utahns, broken down into categories, Mormon, non-Mormon, Republicans, Democrats, whether they thought the LDS leadership has too much influence on Utah’s legislators. The results were what I would expect. Most Mormons said no, non-Mormons and Democrats said yes, they have too much influence. I am firmly in that latter camp.

A few months ago some over-eager Mormon bishop opined that Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader from Nevada, a Democrat and also a Mormon, should be hauled up before church authorities and, based on his political actions and beliefs, charged with various offenses against the faith. That bishop was slapped down quickly because he violated church policy, but if he said it, then a lot of people just like him were already thinking it; they just would not speak it out loud. Because of those opinions that Democrats are somehow not living their religion, it must make Mormons who are also Democrats a very lonely group.

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