Book Reviews. Anthea Butler, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America. Matthew L. Harris, Watchman on the Tower: Ezra Taft Benson and the Making of the Mormon Right.

I’ve had these two books in the queue for a while, Butler’s book by anticipation, Harris’s book by procrastination. They deserve separate posts but I want to get them off my to-do list. Butler’s book is not specifically directed toward Latter-day Saints (she does mention Mormons on a few occasions I believe but it is just in passing) but Harris’s book, if read in tandem with it, will, I think, show that Butler’s work is quite relevant to a Latter-day Saint audience. Both are available as audio books and their format lends itself this medium if you enjoy that.

White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America

Anthea Butler (Associate Professor of Religion, University of Pennsylvania)

Copyright 2021, The University of North Carolina Press

Amazon: hardcover $21.60. Kindle: $9.00. Audible audio book $12.24.

First, Butler. This is a short book, and it serves the purpose of the author: come to grips with a very broad issue but without leaving behind the mainstream reader. Scholars can read with profit however. I did. Racism in the evangelical American world has a long history. In some ways it extends back to the Reformation. But Butler begins with the nineteenth-century and the role of religion in the question of slavery, its support of the Peculiar Institution in the South especially in the Age of Jackson and in Reconstruction. The details of that story can be found in other specialized tomes but Butler does an excellent job of showing what happened in brief and how the racism of the antebellum world found its way into the twentieth century. Mormonism partook of much of that racism and it showed in church doctrines/speech/policies about race from the beginning (Blacks as descended from Cain, curse of Canaan, etc., etc.).

During the last half of the twentieth century, some evangelicals began a move to mainstream their beliefs. The establishment of evangelical educational institutions, not just seminaries but partly secular collegiate institutions helped generate a group of fine scholars like Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, and many others. Butler reveals several things about this effort. She makes a point that may slide by the general reader though: how these scholars tended to skirt race issues in their work. I’d wondered about such things. Noll’s America’s God is an excellent piece of work, and Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity has long been a deserved standard in the field. But I see them with some new vision after reading Butler’s work (I’m not saying I believe they should be put on some lower shelf, not at all. But there is a useful critique in Butler).

Butler speaks to a number things, especially the trajectory of conservative politics. Figures like Glenn Beck, Franklin Graham, Phyllis Schlafly, and others are discussed with (brief) acumen. There’s a lot I’m skipping over. I can’t duplicate her entire book here but she does, successfully I think, arrive at an explanation for the paradoxically overwhelming evangelical support for Donald Trump. That argument can be read with profit by Latter-day Saints who have wondered about the same trend among their own in the Pioneer Corridor.

Butler’s work can be the beginning of a deep dive into the subject but it can also be read by anyone who wants to see below the surface tension of Black Lives Matter for example. Racism can be and is individual. It is also deftly institutional. You won’t hear the words “color blind” the same way again after reading Butler’s timely volume. I highly recommend it.

———————————————–

Watchman on the Tower: Ezra Taft Benson and the Making of the Mormon Right

Matthew L. Harris, Professor of History, Colorado State University.

Copyright 2020, University of Utah Press

Amazon: paper, $30.84. Audible audio book, $10.46.

The University of Utah Press has long been a source for scholarship on topics related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This book is another fine addition to their catalog.

Ezra Taft Benson became, and is, a polarizing figure. His New Deal hating Red Scare politics, anti-civil-rights positions, and a deep affiliation with the John Birch Society made him a standard bearer for people like Cleon Skousen, Ammon and Cliven Bundy, Mormon polygamist leaders like John Ray, and many other far right groups. He led the charge to get rid of Church Historian Leonard Arrington and pressed to have Mormon intellectuals in general shuttered from Brigham Young University. Yet he could be a genuinely kind and caring individual. It was a side of him the public seemed to rarely witness. The man who called Dwight D. Eisenhower a communist mole and the man who sat at dinner eating my mother’s potato soup (it was good stuff let me tell you) seem like two different people to me. Maybe they were both constructs in some sense. It is well to keep in mind that this is *not* a general biography of Benson. It is the story of how Benson’s developing far right conservatism interfaced with his various venues of action.

Harris’s book might best be summarized by a look at his chapter titles:

  1. Socialist New Deal
  2. Socialized Agriculture
  3. Making a Conspiracy Culture
  4. Reining in the Apostle
  5. Remaking Benson

Benson became an LDS apostle in the 1940s, and was taken under the wing of President J. Reuben Clark. Clark was himself a believer in conspiracies of all sorts. One of these he impressed on Benson was based in a deep and unfortunate anti-Semitism(42-45). Jews were largely at fault, at least to some degree, in what happened in Hitler’s Germany, and their influence in the Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower administrations accounted for much of what Clark and his protégé Benson saw as an open door to Communist control. Clark’s views about government welfare programs could be summarized in the thought that it did nothing but create a generation of lazy bread and circuses people, ripe for disposal by the forces of evil bent on the destruction of American freedom. Benson shared these views and they colored the rest of his life and teachings. One newspaper critic opined, “Benson needs to come down out of his ivory tower and mingle with the common folk . . . is he really saying that . . . he doesn’t want the undesirable poor Mormon to be provided housing?”(100).

Harris notes that Dallin Oaks and Benson warred over a faculty appointment of an ultra-conservative political scientist. Oaks vetoed the hire when a Harvard PhD (former BYU graduate) and Rhodes Scholar was a competing candidate. Benson requested an interview with Oak’s choice and grilled him for an hour, promptly declaring him “too liberal” for a church school.(101)

Harris does an interesting job of looking a Benson’s sermons and their tendency to stir the pot among his colleagues. The book is worth the purchase price for that alone.

Carefully researched, well-written, and fairly presented within its purpose, Watchman on the Tower deserves to be read by Latter-day Saints and particularly I think with Butler’s book.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the reviews. I will definitely buy Watchman on the Tower. When I was an undergrad I came across some of Noll’s work and agree with your assessment of his work.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for the reviews WVS.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the head’s up!

  4. NoTimeForPaperBooks says:

    Thanks, WVS! On your recommendation, I finished the audiobook by Butler last night, and am starting on Harris’ book. I’m thoroughly enjoying them.

  5. Glad you enjoyed it notime.

  6. I won’t be reading or buying “Making of the Mormon Right.” The damage that ETB and others (think JRC, JFS, BRM, BKP, et al) did to the Church has been lethal. The anti-history, the anti-science, the biblical literalism, the anti-civil rights, the communists under every rock, etc. has been a disaster. The anti-history has put the Church in the bind it is currently in. But even more serious to me is the anti-science, as exemplified by today’s anti-maskers, the anti-vaxxers, the global warming disbelievers, the anti-evolutionists, etc.

    The conspiracies of ETB live on and are responsible for member support for President Trump, Senator Lee, and their ilk. For the booing of Senator Romney. For Glenn Beck and Cleon Skousen.

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