Ezra Taft Benson Conservatism

I am developing a number of models of Mormon political conservatism. The first model that I am looking to describe in Ezra Taft Benson conservatism. This is not just the political conservatism of President/Elder Ezra Taft Benson, but a broader type of conservatism that is symbolize by the thought of Benson.
Below is the start of the description. I am trying come up with a brief and concise definition of this model. My hope is to have a basic description and not to paint it as good or bad. What am I missing? What aspects have I worded in a misleading way? I fully recognize that I have a bias here.

Ezra Taft Benson conservatism follows a strand of Constitutionalism which associates the U.S. Constitution with small government. All federal programs are suspect, if not some sort of communism. The American Project is a Christian one. There is also a “camel’s nose in the tent” approach to welfare programs and regulation. All programs are the start towards communism.
While federal intrusion is looked down up, a return to practices such as school prayer, are seen as highly desirable. In this sense, it is not libertarian, but arch-conservative. Abortion, gay rights, and other aspect of social liberalism would heavily opposed.

Some elements of ETB conservatism are rather distant from current debates. In particular, ETB was heavily connected to anti-Communism. As a result, Benson heavily favored the military annihilation of the Soviet Union, North Vietnam, and China. While, John Birch Society conservatism has long loathes international organizations like the United Nation. This loathing is partially rooted in a concern about the loss of national sovereignty, but also rooted in a concern that international cooperation might weaken anti-communistic resolve.

More recent versions of John Birch Society conservatism, both the society itself and the Ron Paul “revolution,” have reverted back to more isolationist conceptions of foreign policy. This form of isolationism was more prominent amongst conservatives prior to WWII. ETB conservatism takes a very serious interest in the idea of the “Constitution hanging by a thread.” Likewise, American Exceptionalism takes a very nationalistic form amongst ETB conservatives.

ETB conservatism can be found in a number of segments. Of course, there is the political and religious writings of Elder Benson and President Benson. These range from his speeches on the 1960s conservative circuit to his talks in General Conference. The works of Cleon Skousen also fall within this model . The Naked Communist, The Naked Capitalist, and The 5000 Year Leap would be primary examples, though Skousens lectures and articles are plentiful.

Today, Glenn Beck, who is very much directly inspired by Skousen (by his own admission), is the most active element of ETB conservatism. Now, Beck brings a rather lively performance to this style of conservatism, but the content of it is clearly with ETB conservatism.

I really am approaching this with my political scientist hat on. All comments are welcome. I will likely have questions for you as well.

37 Replies to “Ezra Taft Benson Conservatism”

  1. The anti-Communist element seems crucial to me. The threat/suspicion of communism pervaded nearly every position Benson took, from his reading of Mormon scripture (likening the gadianton robbers to 20th century communists) to his paternalistic take on the “so called civil rights movement” (in which we must not blame the poor negroes who found it appealing for being duped by those subversive reds).

  2. And I should add that I think this is, in part, why Glenn Beck so eagerly latched onto the notion that President Obama was a communist—those most influential on his politics at the time of Obama’s election and early months in office (Benson and Skousen) were writing in an era where anything offensive to their narrow conception of morality and patriotism was suspected of having communist ties. And in their minds, there was no different between socialism and communism. Beck picked up on that and ran with it the moment others first suggested elements of the Democratic platform contained elements of socialism.

    Interestingly, Beck seems to have backed away a bit from those earlier claims, and now interprets Obama’s actions not as emerging from a politically marxist point of view, but rather from a religious one based on “liberation theology.”

  3. Nice, Chris H. We need more work that fleshes out the different brands of Mormon conservatism. I’d add a couple of things to your write-up. 1) The influence of J. Reuben Clark on Benson’s conservatism was fairly extensive. In my opinion, Clark was the granddaddy of the ETB model. 2) There is a regional aspect to this conservatism, as westerners have traditionally been highly suspicious of outside influences. Prior to the 1930s, it was fear of eastern corporations. Under FDR, it was the New Deal. And in the 1960s, it was LBJ’s Great Society. Mormon isolationism in the Great Basin is part of a broader regional phenomenon that uses anti-colonial rhetoric to push back on perceived meddling by outsiders.

  4. I think that it may also be important to note that this type of conservatism appeals to people who are frustrated with perceived ineptitude within the current government system, by giving them a singular reason to focus on for that ineptitude.

    For example, when the public school system is working poorly, it is socialism’s fault. When mail is lost it is socialism’s fault. When Pork is on a bill, when a Cop kills an innocent man, when a judge approves something we don’t morally agree with, etc.

  5. I think some specific quotes would go a long way towards showing that you are not painting a picture from your own imagination. I think ‘annihilation’ may be very strong indeed. Is this his word? Would he condone annihilating the entinre country? All the people? Or just getting rid of the governments in question.

    I guess that was the part that made me grit my teeth a bit. Is annihilation of those countries what he really intended? Is ‘military annihilation’ the method of annihilation, or did you mean to annihilate their military so a better government could be put in place?

  6. Civil rights as a conspiracy always seemed odd to me when there were all those Klansmen running around in what could easily be called robes of a false priesthood and administering oaths of secrecy. It seems to me there was blatant and known conspiracies and they were all on the anti-civil rights side. Did Benson ever address this?

  7. Christopher, I know little about Beck so I won’t comment there. But hasn’t there long been an intimate relationship between Marxist thought and Liberation Theology? Don’t get me wrong, of the Liberation Theology I’ve read I’ve enjoyed it and think there are some fantastic parallels to the Book of Mormon. But among thinkers, especially in the US, hasn’t it tended to be the Marxists who’ve latched onto the ideas? If so, then Beck really isn’t saying much different beyond making a veiled attack at what he sees as modern Marxism’s theological influence.

    (Note: I’m not saying they are of necessity related. I’ve not read enough to speculate there. Plus it seems a fairly broad movement.)

  8. You’re right, Clark. There has. And yes, what Beck’s saying isn’t much different, except in that it’s an explicit move away from Benson/Skousen rhetoric. Neither of them, so far as I know, ever commented on liberation theology by name. My point was that it appears that Beck conceives them as distinct, and as such, that signals a conscious shift on his part.

  9. I think the distinction between using socialism/communism and liberation theology is minor. I would say it is more a matter of updating the approach rather than a shift in strategy.

  10. Eric,

    Do not grit your teeth. It is bad for you. I think that I will change that to say something along the lines of a “strong military response” to communism. “Annihilation” will get dropped.

  11. I actually had Goldwater in mind. However, I am not wanting to be that specific.

    David, in response to you earlier comment, I agree that Clark has some influence, though I think ETB goes far beyond. There indeed is also a geography factor, I am more looking at that as an overall influence on Mormon conservativism and not just this model.

    For all the historian friends, my recent (last few years) Hofstadter obsession is leading me to want to analyze Mormon political ideology more.

  12. Chris, my political influence is grossly exaggerated and I met ETB only a few times. Although he did have a cottage about a block away from mine when I was a kid.

    OK, bad joke.

    I am interested in your thoughts about Liberation Theology. I admit I’ve only read a little but got interested in the subject after that Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies essay on the topic.

    While I’d agree that from my admittedly superficial examination most Liberation Theologians appear to be Marxists and see the solutions to Liberation in socialist terms do you think Liberation Theology proper is always socialist in nature? You don’t think one could have a iibertarian Liberation Theology, for instance? Or at least one that saw solutions within markets? I bring up libertarians merely because it seems to me they are an other movement that sees liberation in terms of a broad societal transformation yet are usually put at the polar opposite to socialism.

  13. “Chris, my political influence is grossly exaggerated and I met ETB only a few times. Although he did have a cottage about a block away from mine when I was a kid.”


    I really do not know much about liberation theology. I just work in different spheres. David might have more to add here.

  14. Just to clarify, by libertarian Liberation Theology I mean the move from marxist oriented broad claims that almost reify classes and communities towards a more grass roots democratic activism on the individual level more characteristic of (dare I say it?) tea party activists. Glenn Beck as Liberation Theologian?

    This isn’t of course to acknowledge most LT is tied to Latin America and has a huge anti-capitalist streak quite at odds with Beck. My question is more to wonder whether this anti-capitalist streak is really essential to the movement. (Of course one could debate about how much latin American capitalism is really capitalism as Americans understand it)

  15. A few things:

    I do think there could be a libertarian liberation theology of some sort. However, I will have to think this through a bit more.

    I do not think that LT is so much anti-capitalist. Instead it relies heavily on empowering the power in a democratic ways. This may be threatening to certain forms of capitalism.

  16. I haven’t had time to peruse all the previous comments – so sorry if I repeat. Since the fall of communism, ETB conservatism hasn’t had an “enemy” to attack. So now they attack anything that resembles communism close to home. Basically, this includes anything with a liberal or social aspect to it. This fear of liberal or social policy grows directly out of their fear of communism and any type of government intrustion (at least any that they disagree with).

  17. Dr. P, you don’t think their fear of communism arose out of fear of government intrusion? That is the movement formed out of a quasi-libertarian critique of government that verged upon paranoia. Communism, given that it was the main totalitarianism of the post war era, was their focus. (Especially since there was a de facto war between us and them) I’d simply note that after the fall of communism these folks looked to anti-democratic totalitarianism in other movements. In the 90’s there was this huge anti-UN movement for instance. After 9/11 we saw this then transfer to the “clash of cultures” with the enemy being Islam. Now with the economic collapse the focus is back on governments. But I think underneath it all is simple libertarianism combined with a paranoia of who is imposing on libertarians.

    (I’ve long wondered how these groups overall viewed the Patriot Act – I know some were virulently opposed to it while others saw it more as a wartime act and thus justified)

  18. Yes, I think the Tea Party (todays reincarnation of ETB’s John Birch Society) are paranoid of many imaginary threats.

    Nothing mobilizes a group better than a perceived threat – no matter how real.

  19. I’m not tea partier but I’m not sure that’s a fair characteristic of the movement as a whole (which seems kind of broad). Certainly it is of many key figures in the movement but I’m not at all convinced the masses in the movement agree with all of which the key figures belief. If anything I think a lot of the tea party anger is kind of inchoate.

    Say what one will about the conspiracy theorists but at least they have reasonably coherent beliefs, if wrong.

  20. Just wondering if any of you have read (or if you are even aware of) Benson’s book Crossfire? It was published shortly after the Eisenhower administration gave way to Kennedy. It is long since out of print, but you can probably find it through interlibrary loan. I used this book while working on the Pres. Benson area in the Church Museum. This book surprised me and gave me a much more nuanced view of Benson as government official, Church leader and just as a human being.

  21. I think the Tea Party (todays reincarnation of ETB’s John Birch Society)

    You have got to be kidding. Or at least you have a lot of explaining to do, because the approach of the two organizations to politics is entirely different. The “Tea Party” is at its a core a conservative/libertarian movement for reducing the size of government. There is little else that holds it together.

    The John Birch Society, on the other hand, tends to see government as a conspiracy theory in action. A perfect example of the paranoid style in American politics. The National Review, generally considered an arch-conservative journal of opinion, was founded in large part to counter the insanity of the JBS approach to politics.

    Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Jim DeMint. Limited government conservatives all. But can anyone seriously believe that any of the three would endorse (or would have endorsed) that kind of lunacy?

  22. Somewhere in all of this “lunacy” or “paranoia” or whatever it is is a pathological need to have someone to hate/blame/dislike/be pissed off at. Even when conservatives controlled the White House, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, many were still angry as hell about something and pointing the finger at whoever happened to be handy. That doesn’t seem to me to be a good starting point for anything good.

  23. Even when conservatives controlled the White House, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court

    It has been at least sixty years since that was the case.

  24. Fifty years, I should say. And even then conservatives were not even close to dominance in the Supreme Court at the time. Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren, who was more the opposite.

    As to how conservative the GOP was in Eisenhower’s time, I am not knowledgable enough to say. Whatever they were, it didn’t last long.

  25. Marjorie Conder:

    I am not sure if I have. I believe that may have skimmed though it this part summer…

    This is the start of a book-length project, I will be reading through a lot of his writings.

  26. You seem to focus on what he is against and that makes it appear biased. You should focus on what he is for in terms that aren’t offensive.

    The war in heaven was about agency. Benson was for preserving that agency and therefore against socialist or communist agendas that take away that agency. You need to view his positions through that lens. Welfare is bad, just like alcohol is bad. It makes people dependent on it and they lose freedom and agency. He isn’t against all programs. He is against programs that take away agency. I don’t think he would be against a private program that assisted poor people to learn skills that assisted them in getting jobs. In fact, there is the Bensen institute which is a humanitarian program that helps poor countries learn to do agriculture and raise chickens, rabbits, and goats for personal consumption. He is against most govt. programs because the taxpayer funds the program without their consent. You have taken away the agency of that citizen to donate that money to some other program or cause they find more valuable. Abortion is taking away the agency and rights of the unborn spirit. Gay marraige is a case where one could argue that it limits the agency of gay person. I think Bensen would argue that it limits the agency of families to raise their kids in a moral manner. This is where you get into why he is a conservative not a libertarian. There’s an interesting dichotomy in that bensen’s politics is very focused on the individual some of the time, but believes that harm to overall society can override the need to preserve an individuals agency. The increased crime and moral decay by legalizing drugs is sufficient reason to deny and individual the right to sniff cocaine in his own home. Same for prostitution. But free agency is a key part of understanding the philosophy. No offense intended, but the article comes across as someone who disagrees with bensen and doesn’t really understand him. Hopefully this bit rambling was in some way helpful.

  27. thesnakeguy,

    I obviously do not agree with Benson. My bigger project will be looking at his thought more closely and will work through some of these details. Thanks for your feedback.

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