Review: Thunder From The Right: Ezra Taft Benson in Mormonism and Politics

Matthew L. Harris, ed. Thunder From the Right: Ezra Taft Benson in Mormonism and Politics.
Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2019.
Hardcover, 260 pages.
Footnotes. Bibliography. Index.
Cloth: $99.00. Paper: $27.95. Kindle: $14.95. [Kindle not paginated.]
ISBN-10: 0252042255
ISBN-13: 978-0252042256

Ezra Taft Benson, whose life spanned most of the twentieth century, was an important figure in US politics and religion. Several times a candidate for president of the United States, he was a prominent anti-communist and John Birch Society supporter. An LDS apostle from 1943 until his death in 1994 (Benson became the 13th president of the church in 1985), he was a powerfully conservative voice on traditional roles of women at home rather than the workplace and was the founder of an influential thread of Mormon political philosophy. These themes and others are explored in a new volume edited by historian Matthew Harris (Colorada State Univ-Pueblo), from the University of Illinois Press. Harris recruited a number of familiar voices from the world of Mormon studies, including Gary Bergera, (noted Mormon author), our own Matthew Bowman (assoc. prof. of history, Henderson State Univ.), Newell Bringhurst (emeritus prof. of history), Brian Q. Cannon, (prof. of history, BYU), Robert Goldberg (prof. of history, Univ. of Utah), J. B. Haws (assistant prof. of history, BYU), Andrea G. Radke-Moss (prof. of history BYU-Idaho).

Each of the eight essays provides penetrating scholarship on various aspects of the career of one of the most important and influential Mormon figures of the last century.

Cannon’s essay opens the volume and provides us with background on Benson’s early farm-family life and developing social philosophy based in part on a Progressive return to Jeffersonian idealism and leads up to Benson’s tenure as Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower administration.

Bergera’s essay studies how Benson’s 1959 half-day interview with then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, grew from a more or less stolid routine review of American agricultural policy at the time into a meeting between good and evil, a confrontation between the threat to free agency in Communism and the liberating power of Capitalism in later tellings by Benson.

Goldberg’s work shows how Benson was a key player in making Mormons into a valued and important segment of the New Right emerging in the death throes of New Dealism and the opening of the cultural conflicts of 1960s. Benson was a force in the trend that eventually found (Intermountain West) Mormons to be largely Republican and highly conservative (Utah had supported New Deal politics and then Truman’s follow on version). Benson’s rejection of federal social aid programs as enemies to free agency ethics was shared by many Depression Era and post-war LDS leaders, an ethos only recently in decline. Goldberg shows Benson as Moses figure in uniting three grown conservative-reactionary trends: fear of moral relativism and permissiveness, fear of weakening private property and other libertarian ethics, fear of Communist expansion in Europe and Asia.

Bringhurst’s essay offers a fascinating discussion of Benson’s now little known presidential aspirations. Once again Benson’s affiliation with conservative groups became a fraught issue inside and outside the church hierarchy.

Harris’s essay takes on Benson’s joining in the perception of the American civil rights movement of the 1960s and Martin Luther King Jr in particular as part of a Communist conspiracy and that King was a Soviet pawn. Benson carried on a long-held Southern Theology that characterized African Americans as the “seed of Cain” and found the civil disobedience of the times a threat to the divinely inspired constitution of the United States. Benson saw longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and King-hater as a reliable witness even after Hoover’s lies about King were exposed following Hoover’s death. Harris provides interesting insight into the internal struggle among church leaders over civil rights.

Bowman’s work reveals the development of Benson’s political theology and its still persisting threads. In “The Cold War and the Invention of Free Agency,” Bowman shows how Benson’s experiences from his Idaho upbringing and his small-town “producerist” ethic fed into a theological transformation of classical Mormon “War in Heaven” narratives into a new slant on the Mormon story of agency. As Bowman notes, “. . . during the 1940s and 1950s, [Benson] laid the groundwork for a transformation of free agency from something sustained through moral exertion into something that stood eternally in peril. For Benson, the fading of political freedom threatened to kill the human soul. For Benson, the Gadianton robbers of the Book of Mormon were a present entity. Bowman writes: “Benson combined older producerist language that linked freedom to ethical behavior with a powerful conviction that government itself posed a moral threat to freedom, and a conspiratorial worldview that saw danger omnipresent.”

Radke-Moss’s essay in a number of ways is one of the most riveting. It is remarkably well done. Ezra Taft Benson’s influence on the Mormon theology of women was profound and still echoes on a number of fronts. If the civil rights movement of the 1960s was a bugaboo for Benson, the Equal Rights Amendment in many ways took its place in the 1970s. Radke-Moss does an excellent job with both Benson’s personal unwavering views of the role of woman as homemaker (even suggesting that college is a waste of resources for the faithful woman) and the broader history of the twentieth-century LDS church and its interface with feminists and the American women’s movement.

J. B. Haws’s essay discusses Benson’s church presidency (1985-1994). Haws calls attention to a number of actions of Benson’s presidency that ran counter to what many perceived about his positions on race and politics. Benson didn’t make public statements of reversal on such matters but his presidency’s actions seemed an about-face on a number of fronts. Benson’s presidency suffered from the same issue as his predecessor: he became incapacitated for several years near its end, generating controversy over a number of issues including the so-called September Six. But Benson’s prophetic ministry was largely linked to two things, the first one emphasized strongly by Haws: a retrenchment over Book of Mormon content and its use and secondly the encoding of Benson’s long-held deeply conservative beliefs on the roles of men and women in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Benson may have privately held on to his views about the Birch Society (as evidenced by his sending Birch material out after his appointment as president) but his administration was also marked by a distinct lack of public point-making over his formerly favored topics.[1]

I can’t offer much critique for any of the essays. They are all grounded in careful research and typically even-handed and well written—-though they may make fans of Benson’s politics or critics of his theology uncomfortable at times. I enjoyed the book and recommend it highly. It contains commendable scholarship and is a welcome addition to twentieth-century Mormon studies.

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[1] If President Benson’s worries over modern Gadianton’s weren’t expressed during his last years, they still stuck with many people. I was startled by the remarks of a friend in a 1990 church meeting as he was preparing to move to a different state: “I will spend my time seeking to ferret out those secret combinations our president has warned us against!” I don’t know if he found them yet.

Comments

  1. Eric Facer says:

    Thanks for this review, though, based on what you have written, I’m having trouble seeing what in these essays would make critics of President Benson’s theology feel uncomfortable?

  2. I couldn’t cover everything, Eric. Temptation is a tool of reviewers.

  3. Eric Facer says:

    Well, it worked. I just ordered the book.

  4. GEOFF -AUS says:

    I wonder if he will be held partly responsible for taking the church to the extreme right. Many members in Australia want to be part of the extreme right here, because of opposition to gay marriage. But they find they are with a group that is also anti muslim, anti immigration, and anti climate change.
    There is much anti muslim sentiment by mormons on facebook, and they have adopted the hatefull style of the extreme right too.
    There is discussion of how we should deal with this devisive behaviour here, because it is not good, not uniting, not civil. Mormons are a part of this because they think this is who mormons are. ET is part of the reason for this understanding.

  5. The day will come with members of the Church will understand that they need to keep firmly planted in the center and worry as a people about a few critical issues, and not party identification. Anti-Muslim rhetoric is one of those issues.

    An interesting project – and maybe this is covered in this book, maybe not – would be to study how Benson’s rhetoric changed after he became president of the Church. My gut sense, just from reading a few conference talks, is that the heaviest doses of politics came when he was a member of the 12.

  6. queuno, JB Haws’s chapter addresses ETB’s public speech after his elevation to church president.

  7. Matt Harris says:

    WVS: Thank you for your kind review of my book. The scholars did an outstanding job assessing Benson’s career in a honest, respectful, and evenhanded way.

    Geoff: I am writing another book on Benson titled “Watchman on the Tower”: Ezra Taft Benson and the Making of the Mormon Right. It should be published later this year. I analyze in great detail why Elder Benson embraced conspiracy theories and, more importantly, how they radicalized a small segment of the church. Thus, I examine Preppers, the Bundys, and a host of other ultra-radical Mormons who claimed an affinity with his writings. I also examine how Benson’s rhetoric changed after he became the church president. While he still curried favor with the Birch Society, he followed the counsel of his fellow apostles and curbed his political speech. Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball, and Gordon B. Hinckley were all instrumental in this regard.

  8. Well, dang it. Now I have to buy it, although, I’ve beem burned recently on Mormon scholarship.

  9. The apartment beneath ours at Wymount Terrace (BYU married student housing) from 1988-91 was a magnet for rabid Bensonites. One of whom did not appreciate it when I said that I was supporting B-e-n-t-s-e-n in the upcoming election. (Google it) I maintain that it was a great pun.

    And Matt Bowman comes up with the best titles.

  10. Looking forward to the new book Matt.

  11. The Other Clark says:

    I had thought that Pres. Benson’s anti-communism was sparked by his tour of post-war Europe, especially the Soviet-occupied areas of Germany. Is this addressed by any of the essays-or by Matt’s forthcoming book? Or is this approach completely erroneous?

  12. Thanks for this review.

  13. Matt Harris says:

    The Other Clark: You are correct. Benson’s anticommunism was indeed sparked by his tour of post-war Europe. But it wasn’t just communism he loathed from touring Europe. He felt equally strong about fascism and socialism and blamed various “isms” on war-torn Europe. His anticommunism was also stoked from serving in Eisenhower’s cabinet. Recall that he began his govt service during the Joseph McCarthy era. Elder Benson was certainly a product of his time.

  14. Christian Johnson says:

    Being Anti-Soviet in the 1950’s is proof he was not deceived by Stalinist propaganda. The evils of Soviet rule are now exposed to the west, and those who opposed them were indeed prophetic.

    Attempts to diminish Ezra Taft Benson by holding him up against 2019 policy standards is a waste of time in my opinion.