Conspiracy Theory and the Idea of Freedom: The Lessons of Bo Gritz

We live at a time when conspiracy theory is spreading. This is my third post on its particularly Mormon manifestations. See the first here and the second here

In 1985, James “Bo” Gritz received a patriarchal blessing. According to him, a few years later, it promised “the gift of discernment,” and “the ability to explain in words people will understand. You will have multitudes that will follow you. They will have no allegiance to you. They will only have allegiance to what it is you stand for.”

Regardless of how accurately Gritz reported on the blessing, this was certainly how he liked to perceive himself. He possessed special insight as a result of spiritual gifts; he stood for a Cause, not personal aggrandizement; nonetheless, he was part of a movement.

When Gritz received the blessing he was well past forty, but this was because he was a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His conversion was similarly dramatic—the product, in part, of the same impulses that drove his interpretation of his blessing.

Gritz was a career soldier, a Vietnam veteran, and by all accounts a sterling officer, the recipient of multiple honors and praised all the way up the military chain of command. He retired after thirteen years of service at age forty in 1979. He remained restless, though, and drank deep of the anti-government cynicism that pervaded the 1970s: the product of American withdrawal from Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and the growing mobilization of conservative thinktanks, funded by major corporations, that steadily blasted regulation as the death of freedom.

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In the 1980s, Gritz began to mount independent, covert missions to Vietnam looking for the 2,500 American soldiers who were missing in action. He was confident many were still held by the communist Vietnamese regime, and he persuaded an organization of MIA family members to endorse his trips. He rescued no soldiers, but he came back with three convictions.


The first was that there were indeed still living American soldiers held in Vietnam.

The second was that the American government was corrupt. There existed, he said, a “parallel government” that was concerned primarily with profiteering and power. It was slowly chiseling away at American freedom. It knew that those MIA soldiers were still in Vietnam and chose to leave them, because of a devil’s bargain with drug lords in southeast Asia.

Gritz’s third conviction was that God was directing him to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

****

He told a newspaper reporter he had a revelatory experience in the Vietnam jungles. God spoke to him. In 1984 he was baptized. In 1985 he and his wife Claudia were sealed in the St. George temple.

It appears that at least two things about the Church appealed to Gritz. The first was the promise of personal divine revelation. Indeed, Gritz later claimed that “I found great peace and clarity in my celestial communication” as a member of the Church, and he pointed to his patriarchal blessing as an affirmation that God knew him and had a plan for his life.  

Second, Gritz believed that the LDS Church was sympathetic to his emerging political beliefs, which included social conservatism and suspicion of government. In particular, he was sympathetic to the past political writings of Ezra Taft Benson, who became president of the Church the same year Gritz and his wife were sealed. He called Benson “a gentleman and a true patriot,” and said “he has never varied from the views he talked about as an apostle.”

Those views included an important distinction. While Benson indeed was a “conservative” in the American sense–a word that has since the 1960s connoted opposition to large government programs and support for social traditionalism—Benson was also a conspiracy theorist. Conspiracy belief is a third dimension in American politics; it is neither left nor right, but can attach itself to either end of the American political spectrum.

For Benson, and later for Gritz, it attached itself to their conservatism. It elaborated their conservative opposition to large government with belief in a shadowy elite seeking to use that government to destroy American freedom. It built on top of their social traditionalism fear of a plot to destroy the American family. And it was essentially wound into their faith in the Church. Gritz eagerly adopted Benson’s conspiracist reading of the Book of Mormon, seeing contemporary political actors in that book’s “secret combinations.”

Gritz’s conspiracist form of Christianity extended beyond Mormonism. He regularly consorted with Christian Identity, a movement that associated Christianity with white supremacy, and—particularly to Gritz’s liking—believed that the American government was using policies like affirmative action to establish a totalitarian state. He drew many ideas from evangelical conspiracy theorists who believed that the Antichrist was seeking domination over the world through international organizations like the United Nations.

By the mid-1980s, Gritz was speaking and writing about the threat of the “New World Order,” a phrase made popular by the Pentecostal leader Pat Robertson, and had become well known in conspiracist circles. And what circles they were in those years. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a boom time for American conspiracism. The federal government had a number of clashes with so-called “militia” groups and other groups of small, defiant conspiracy believers. The shootout with the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge. The tragedy of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. In 1994, the Christian Identity believer Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma. All of these groups merged fear of the United Order with Gritz’s beliefs about the “parallel government” and the racial resentment stoked by Christian Identity.

And in 1988, Bo Gritz was nominated by the conspiracist Populist Party to be the running mate on the presidential ticket of David Duke, the former Louisiana politician and Klansman. After a bit of hesitation Gritz withdrew his name, citing distaste of Duke. But in 1992 he claimed the Populist presidential nomination for himself and burned a United Nations flag on stage, and it was then that his conspiracist beliefs drew him into conflict with the Church.

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Crucially, for much of the twentieth century Church leaders were “conservative,” but not conspiracist to the extent that Benson and Gritz were. This had, I suspect, much to do with the Church’s desire for respectability, fear of seeming extreme or disreputable on the American public stage, and concern for social stability.

Thus, in 1992 Brigham Young University invited the two major presidential candidates, Bill Clinton and the incumbent George HW Bush to speak. Gritz was furious he did not receive a similar invitation. Increasingly, he grew convinced that his Church was itself wrapped into the conspiracy. “It was painfully clear that LDS Church leaders favored Bush and would do whatever it takes to keep votes from me and the Constitution.”

In the same months that Gritz was running for president, Utah newspapers were reporting that the Church was quietly attempting to repress conspiracy belief in is own ranks. In late November 1992, local leaders of the Church throughout the West began interviewing and in some cases excommunicating or disfellowshipping Church members participating in survivalist, apocalyptic, and conspiracy discussion groups or other organizations. A man named Ronald Garff in Utah was instructed to stop selling his video series “Today through Armageddon,” which concluded the Second Coming would happen in April 2000.

In 1994, the apostle Dallin Oaks condemned what he called “all-consuming patriotism” in a talk. “I caution those patriots who are participating in or provisioning private armies,” he said. “Their excessive zeal for one aspect of patriotism is causing them to risk spiritual downfall as they withdraw from the society of the Church and from the governance of those civil authorities to whom our twelfth article of faith makes all of us subject.” Oaks’s concern for the Church’s participation in mainline American society is evident.

Thus, according to Gritz, his stake president Lewis Hildreth received instructions from Church headquarters to review some of Gritz’s speeches and writings. Hildreth instructed Gritz to stop speaking in Church buildings or at Church gatherings.

Increasingly, Gritz found that the two factors that drew him to the LDS Church—the sympathy he sensed there for his conspiratorial politics and its affirmation of his sense of personal revelation—were coming into conflict.

And like so many conspiracy theorists, he found in this equation that it was the Church itself he could discard.

In 1994 Gritz decided he would no longer file income tax returns, believing the IRS to be unconstitutional and a tool of totalitarianism. In response, his stake president withheld Gritz’s temple recommend. And in response to that, Gritz resigned his membership in the Church.

The LDS Church, he declared, “appears to be more controlled by government than God.” He insisted that the Church had succumbed to a desire for worldly power and sacrificed its commitment to the principles taught by Benson. But he was sure what his path should be. “I choose to use my agency and here is what I believe,” he said. “It’s more important what my personal relationship is with the Savior.”

We can learn a lot from the story of Gritz: in particular, the deep, perhaps unresolvable tension within the Church between its high view of individual agency and personal communion with God and the inherent conservatism of any large institution.

How the ideas surrounding either of these characteristics might lend one critical ballast for conspiracy belief.

The ways language of agency can bolster a certain form of hyper-individualist masculinity that can also contribute to the combative rhetoric of conspiracy belief and a heroic perception of one’s own role in an imagined struggle between good and evil. For many of these sorts, a certain reading of the Book of Mormon figure Captain Moroni is a touchstone, and the world becomes a very black and white place.

That conspiracy belief is a problem endemic to much of white Christianity in the United States since the middle of the last century, and that the rhetorical markers of Gritz’s particular form of conspiracism—fear of totalitarianism, suspicion of “globalism,” hyper-sensitive rhetoric about freedom and individual liberty, apocalypticism—are not new to the particular manifestations we are seeing now, in 2021.

And, perhaps finally, that the Church has the tools to act on it, should they so choose.

****

The various quotations and facts in this piece are drawn from the following sources.

Image from Salt Lake Tribune, January 14, 1991, 5.

Christopher Smith, “Messiah of Grass Roots Politics Makes Second Coming to Utah,” Salt Lake Tribune, October 25, 1992, 1.

Christopher Smith, “Hero-Turned-Heretic?” Salt Lake Tribune, November 29. 1992, 2.

Peggy Fletcher Stack, “LDS Deny Mass Ouster of Radicals,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 4, 1992, 33.

Christopher Smith, “LDS Zealots Muzzling Outspoken to Protect Tax Status, Gritz Says,” Salt Lake Tribune, January 22, 1993, 25.

Christopher Smith, “Gritz Blasts His Fair Weather Friends,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 24, 1994, 18.


Christopher Smith, “Ultraconservative Gritz Remains as Bold As Ever,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 7, 1994, 11.

“Gritz wants Out of the LDS Church,” Salt Lake Tribune, October 22, 1994, 21.

Comments

  1. As I read this I wondered if it, and similar stories, were taught in High School it could be pointed out that people have been believing in some sort of shadow government for decades which has yet to actually do something. It’s silly. And hopefully that would prevent future conspiracy theories.

  2. pseudonym says:

    jader3rd: Sadly, I’m certain my conspiracy theorist friend would point to, among other things, mask mandates, vaccine mandates (even non-governmental mandates), Biden’s election, the Affordable Care Act, gay marriage, continued involvement in the UN, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence of what the shadow government has been doing. Maybe pointing these things out might help people from joining the ranks of the conspiracy theorists, but I don’t expect it will awaken anyone who has already jumped on the conspiracy-theory express train to crazytown.
    I have a close friend of many years who has been wading ever deeper into conspiracy theories for years, and the last 18 months have made everything so much worse. Every piece of evidence either supports the conspiracy, or, if it directly contradicts the conspiracy, it was done that way just for the conspiracy to cover their tracks, and is therefore even more evidence of the conspiracy.
    I normally use my real name on comments here, but as I am uncertain if this friend reads BCC (probably not, they’d hate it) I’m going to stay incognito this time.

  3. I attended one of Gritz’s Utah rallies in the early 1990s–probably early 1992, in Salt Lake City–while I worked at BYU’s Daily Universe. It was quite a production. Empty chairs on the stage for the spirits of the signers of the Declaration of Independence to be seated in, Gritz being introduced as a “Captain Moroni” for today, and, of course, the burning of the UN flag. The immediate post-Cold Wars delirium made for some good times in the State of Deseret, back in the day.

    (Also, for whatever its worth, the BYU administration may have issued invitations to both Clinton and Bush in 1992, but they only seriously pursued the latter. President Bush had a huge rally in the Marriott Center, which was completely packed. Push-back and grumbling from various students and faculty and others convinced the administration to try again with the Democrats, and they arranged for Paul Tsongas–who of course had lost the Democratic nomination months before–to speak in the old Wilkinson ballroom. It was well-attended and he got off some good shots at the GOP and Gritzian protesters with signs in the back–“why are you all standing so close together?” I remember asking with a smirk–but it really can’t compare to the red carpet that was rolled out for the president.)

  4. Matthew Harris’ latest book, Watchman on the Tower: Ezra Taft Benson and the making of the Mormon Right, is an excellent read on this topic generally. Benson and Skousen were immensely popular in my neck of the woods (outside the state of Utah), as I grew up under their political shadow as a boy and young teen. Later, while away at college, Gritz followed with an even more extreme version of conservative white nationalism and enjoyed outsized popularity among the most conservative members in my home region.

    Even after Gritz’s falling out with the church, his influence in my home region became so disruptive that one evening a friend of mine who was a young member of a stake presidency back home called me to request a copy of a SL Tribune article we had discussed some weeks before. If I recall, in 1998 the Tribune published an article featuring Marlin K. Jensen speaking in an official capacity about how the state of Utah was hurt because of political imbalance, the lack of healthy debate from opposing views in the Utah State Legislature and why members needed to be reminded they could align with any party and remain in good standing with the church. I think he addressed concerns centering on the church becoming a one party organization. (And I think there was also a plea for members to become more engaged by running for elected office.) I’m not sure if the story moved the needle in Utah, but my friend asked if I could send the story to him electronically. He in turn made copies and distributed the piece to their high council and every bishopric member in his stake. This effort successfully convinced their stake leadership, even if begrudgingly, that the church was pining for political balance and Gritz was out of line and not to be endorsed. The effort enabled the stake to dislodge Gritz’s grip on many in that area. It was no small task I was told.

    What amazes me is despite the consternation and embarrassment Benson caused within church leadership, according to Harris’ history on this matter, they chose not to make a public statement reprimanding Benson despite even considering if they could release him from the quorum. Thus, Benson’s apparent authority and rhetoric continued to move church members (at least many of them) to the far right, which has pretty much set the table for the issues we see today–as Park’s op-ed explains–from the perverted purpose of DezNat to vaccine hesitant conservatives along the Wasatch Front and elsewhere openly rejecting the first presidency’s counsel. Evidently, the need for the church not to publicly discredit someone like Benson outweighed the damage he was doing to the reputation of the church and to its members. As I look back, this strikes me as a failure on the part of the church to sort out its moral priorities.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    This is a great right-up, Matt. This is an important series, and I appreciate the work you are doing.

  6. It’s beyond the scope of what you’re writing here, but the anti-federal income tax movement of the 1970s was led by (or at least participated in significantly by) Mormons; in my research (because you wrote the magic words to draw me in!), there appears to be a link between these 1970s Mormon tax protestors and the eventual inclusion in the Handbook of the idea that members who don’t pay their income taxes are subject to church discipline.

    There are, of course, more details (and I have them in my notes and, eventually, they’ll work their way into my current book project), but I haven’t looked at this particular aspect of Mormons and tax in a couple years, so I’m a little hazy on specific details.

  7. Thanks Matt. Nice work.

  8. A Poor Wayfaring Stranger says:

    When I was choosing which classes to take my first semester at BYU I decided to take the first half of the required Book of Mormon classes from Cleon Skousen. My parents had his Bible series which I’d read and I figured that he would be an interesting teacher. Was I ever in for a shock! First of all, we were required to use his own special textbooks that he’d written himself and that were so much more expensive than the standard textbook for the course. His books and his class turned out to be one huge advertisement for the Freemen Institute (later renamed The Center for Constitutional Studies which he’d founded with Ezra Taft Benson and Benson’s two sons). According to Skousen the BoM was the story of secret combinations, Gadianton robbers, kingmen and every sort of evil and political mayhem. The stories about God’s guiding a group of people to settle in a new land, trying to live the pre-incarnation gospel, looking forward to Christ’s birth, etc. didn’t ever really figure into his narrative. One day one of Benson’s sons came to talk to the class and he warned us about the hidden and devious ways that communists and socialists were trying to infiltrate BYU and the church in an attempt to brainwash us into becoming their godless followers. My cousin, who took the class with me, and I walked out of that class wondering if we’d somehow just been in our own version of The Twilight Zone. We were shocked to discover that people in positions of power and leadership in the church could actually believe that such far fetched fantasies were actual truth. Most of the class had the same reaction as we did although there were a handful of guys who really got off on all of the conspiracy theories. It was terrifying for a lowly freshman to behold!

    A few years later a friend invited me to go with him to a dinner at The Center for Constitutional Studies. I went out of curiosity. President Benson (who was now the president of the Q12) introduced the speaker who was a good friend of his and a “righteous patriot doing God’s work to save America from her own destruction”. How I wish that cell phones had been around back then so that I could’ve played that speech plus what Benson said before and after the guest speaker! It made my blood grow cold hearing two adult men talking such utterly crazy and terrifying stuff while everyone in the room except me was hanging on their every word. After the talk the members of the Center got up and basically bore their testimonies about how grateful they were to have received such light and knowledge from two chosen oracles of God. Fortunately for me I began to get a migraine and had to leave. It took quite a while for me to process what I’d just witnessed. The friend and I parted company after that experience, and I really struggled to raise my hand to sustain Benson when he became the prophet. I still don’t understand why some people fall for conspiracy theories and others like myself don’t. What I do understand though is that enabling individuals to believe such garbage without there being any kind of consequences is the quickest way to destroy a group, church or country. We can choose to believe wild and crazy conspiracies, but we can’t choose the consequences that result from acting on those beliefs no matter how cherished they are.

  9. Geoff - Aus says:

    You infer there a left wing conspiracy theories. I am only aware of right wing. I have assumed they were a result of america being so much further to the right than most first world countries. I am not aware of this phenomena in Australia until the internet allowed it to be imported from america.

    I think EtB will have a lot to answer for. He is used as justification for so much evil.

    How do conspiracy theorists see the olympics, particularly the para olympics that are on now? Is it being shown there? Have you seen the ejyptian table tennis player, who has no arms, holds the bat in his mouth, and plays barefoot so he can throw the ball up with his toes when serving.

  10. I very much appreciate this article. I remember the popularity of Gritz in my home area- not unlike that of Ammon Bundy today.
    I wish I had an answer for another commentor’s question as to why some people tend to go the conspiracy route and others do not. I credit my father for keeping our family away from ETB’s lecture series in a nearby city and in not being a fan of Skousen’s work after reading only one of his books. I tend to follow my father’s path while other family members do not.

  11. I am a High Priest who grew-up in The LDS Church, I have a fault no man or beast poses but Me. I set an example better than most LDS Leaders, excluding Prophet Seers and revelators. I was kicked off The LDS Property without Church Courtt, by The Stake President through LDS Attorneys with no merit to do so by The Stake President and all future Presidents. I have been fighting to return for 21/2 Years, no Avail. The convert leadership today is intimidated by lifetime membership their Seminary’s education and on hand wisdom through much study, implications of, and Their much prayers during Their life time. They much regard sufficient study as grey-areas or benefit of a doubt, no in My case, I had no calling, I volunteered as an Usher, shaking hands & hugs, singing too loud, and answering too many questions (2 ot 3). I am a 10 Year War Hero, 109% Service Connected. I have done many miraculous things or accomplishments through God, like walking in 30 Years after being in a wheelchair for 41/2 Years, running a marathon at age 59, world Champ in martial arts, 61/2 years college after Brain Injury during war, just to mention a few. My distant Cousin is Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. I will still fight until My last breath because I know The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is true.

    Elder Rutland
    10 Year War Hero (100% Service Connected)
    HighPriest, LDS Life-Time Membership

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