Ezra Taft Benson and the tangled history of Mormon and evangelical extremism

Historian Matthew L. Harris speaks about the critical role that Mormonism played in the development of right-wing American politics
Cliven Bundy, patriarch of the extremist Bundy family, a group of Mormons who were inspired by former church president Ezra Taft Benson.

Episode Summary

The 1960s are famous in the American political memory as a time of leftist revolution. Millions marched against racial segregation and the Vietnam War. Women’s liberation went mainstream, and the fight for lesbian and gay rights began. But the sixties were also a time of counter-revolution, a moment when many of the radical forces that became prominent on January 6th, 2021 really began to gain momentum.

In episode 15 of this program, we talked with historian Angie Maxwell about how fundamentalist white Southerners flooded into Protestant churches and seminaries. But a similar radicalization process happened within Latter-day Saint Mormonism, a religion that has an outsized influence on the politics of Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and some other Western states.

We’ll be talking about all of that today with Matthew L. Harris. He’s a professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo. We’ll be discussing the political evolution of Mormonism, and the many ways in which its major figures fit into the larger stories of American reaction and white Christian fundamentalism.

What I hope will be clear by the end of the episode, is that while Mormonism is often thought of as a sort of obscure a sect that just does its own thing, it’s actually been highly integrated into the development of American right-wing extremism. The core of our discussion today will be around Harris’s excellent book, “Watchman on the Tower Ezra Taft Benson and the Making of the Mormon Right.” And he has several other ones worth checking out including one coming out soon about Mormonism and race.


Transcript


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being with me today.

MATTHEW HARRIS: Thanks for inviting me. I look forward to our discussion.

SHEFFIELD: So, to the extent that people who are non-Mormons are aware of it generally, it seems to be they think of Mormonism in terms of more moderate conservative Mormons like Mitt Romney, or even his father George Romney. But the reality is that Mormonism is kind of like a miniature Republican Party. Because there also are a lot of far-right voices within Mormonism historically and also today.

And perhaps most famously the ones out there are the Bundy family who live in Idaho and they have been involved with a lot of radical anti-mask stuff and squatting on federal lands. Can you talk a little bit about them and how they fit into this far-right section of Mormonism?

HARRIS: Well, the Bundy family, they are, they would certainly be considered the far right extreme in the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They’re commonly called Mormons. They grew up in the Intermountain West in Idaho and also Nevada and the Bundys unlike Mitt Romney, who would position himself as a center-right candidate in Mormon circles, the Bundys are far right. They were influenced by two extremely ultra conservative Latter-day saints, one of whom was a high-ranking church leader, guy named Ezra Taft Benson, who was not only a Mormon apostle and church president, but he also served in Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential cabinet as his secretary of agriculture.

So this guy Benson wore two hats, both government and also religious. And then the second person that the Bundys drew inspiration from was a close friend of Benson’s, a guy named Cleon Skoussen, who wasn’t a Mormon church leader, but he had significant clout among Mormons in the 1950s and 60s when Cliven Bundy was coming of age.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and more recently, they were involved with squatting on federal lands, the Bundys correct?

HARRIS: Yeah. A few years ago, the Bundys took federal property by gunpoint in Oregon, claiming that there was a government conspiracy to take away state and local lands.

And what was interesting, they quoted three justifications for doing this. One was Benson. Some of his writings, one was Skoussen some of his writings. And then thirdly, they quoted Mormon scripture claiming that Mormon scripture had authorized them to do this, that there was a conspiracy within the government.

That’s how they read scripture and that somehow it was justified. And I might add that today’s Mormon church strongly denounced this idea of scripture. They thought it was a cropped reading of the scripture, and that’s not what the scriptures had intended. So, the Bundys are certainly on the fringes of the church, but I’m told they’re still very practicing Latter-day Saints.

Although they been somewhat critical, at least one of them in recent years, claiming that the church has gone too liberal. They’re globalists, they’re environmentalist’s, they support immigration. So one of the Bundys has been openly critical of the church.

SHEFFIELD: So, you mentioned Ezra Taft Benson as one of their major influences. A lot of people have never heard of him because he died a number of decades ago in the nineties. But as it turns out, his legacy has really lived on long after his death. Who was Ezra Taft Benson?

HARRIS: Yeah. So, Benson was born at Whitney, Idaho in 1899. He died in 1994, so he lived a full life. He got involved in farm cooperatives in the 1930s during the Great Depression. And growing up in rural Idaho, he was certainly conservative. Conservative values.

Came from a very poor family, like many farmers did at the time. And didn’t understand the role of government in one’s life. Just thought that you should pull yourself up by your bootstraps, even if you didn’t have any bootstraps. And so that was the mentality that he grew up with as a farmer, this idea of rugged individualism.

And in the 1930s, he went to Washington, DC to work in farm cooperatives, which is a fancy way of saying that farmers can pool their resources together in marketing and exporting their crops and they could save a lot of money. It’s essentially more efficient that way. And it’s in Washington, DC where he Benson gets noticed by national political leaders.

In 1948 guy named Thomas Dewey, he ran as a Republican against Harry Truman. Dewey noticed Benson’s good work with farm cooperatives and wanted to invite Benson into his cabinet, should he win the election. So he had already earmarked Benson for the secretary of agriculture position and Benson, which is interesting because Benson was a Mormon apostle. He was called as a Mormon apostle in 1943.

SHEFFIELD: And what are apostles, just for those who don’t know what they are in the Mormon church?

HARRIS: Yeah. There are two leading quorums in the church. These are the apparatus that runs the church. So the first, the highest quorum, the governing body in the church would be what’s called the First Presidency. And that would be the church president and his two counselors. And the second-highest governing body in the LDS church, or the Mormon church, would be the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

And Benson was called into the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1943, five years before Dewey wanted him to join his cabinet, if he won the election. And anyway, so what’s interesting about that is once you’re called as an apostle, you don’t do anything else except your ecclesiastical ministry.

And so in this sense, Benson had to get special permission from the church president to take a leave of absence from his ministry in order to run or to participate in politics. It turns out that Dewey didn’t win. They thought that Dewey won, but he didn’t.

SHEFFIELD: And that’s the famous “Dewey defeats Truman” headline that we’ve all seen photos of by now.

HARRIS: That’s right. The press got this wrong and suggested that Dewey had won when he really didn’t. But anyway, Benson had this idea that because of World War II and tyranny in Italy and Germany with these dictators, Mussolini and Hitler, of course, that democracy needed to be exported that the constitution at home, meaning the United States was under assault from forces not friendly to democracy.

And so, Benson starts to read into his theology a little bit that he has to save the Constitution. And I’m frequently asked, if he’s a Mormon leader, why would he want to run for political office or participate in somebody’s cabinet? And the answer is because this is a way to preserve the Constitution, or at least the principles of the constitution that he deems worth preserving.

So anyway, fast-forward to 1953, Dwight Eisenhower asked Benson to join his cabinet. And of course, the results this time are different because Eisenhower extended the invitation to Benson a month after his victory. So, in November of 1952, Eisenhower extended the invitation for Benson to join his cabinet and asking him to relocate to Washington, DC in January.

SHEFFIELD: And sorry, just to step in for a second. Benson being an apostle in the LDS Church, that’s basically the equivalent of being a cardinal in the Catholic Church. Nothing like that has ever happened before or since in American history so it was really quite something that this did happen.

HARRIS: So, what’s interesting about Benson is, the context is really important because this is how Benson, this is when he starts to develop his extremist views is when he’s in Washington. Prior to that, he was a conservative farmer, and now he starts to dabble into extremist politics in the fifties. And as a person with a high-ranking church authority or position, he’s not used to being told, talked down to, or told what to do. His flock doesn’t tell him what to do.

And so, he gets to Washington and he gets pushback for some of his farm policies. And it really unnerves him because, again, he’s used to operating in a vacuum. But now he has to deal with special interest groups. He has to deal with, of course, Democrats, folks, not in his party.

And then he had to deal with moderates in his party who don’t like his conservative farm policies. And so Benson is really struggling with this. And he also struggles with this idea that there’s a red scare going on in Washington when he comes to power in January of 1953.

Joseph McCarthy starts up his antics and accusing everybody in any one at being a communist. And what’s interesting, I’m not defending Benson necessarily, but context is always important, because Benson will be sucked into the Red Scare. And he, too, will start to look at people within his own shop, the Department of Agriculture, and he’ll look for communists. But what’s interesting is in 1936, there was a person named Alger Hiss, who was in the Department of Agriculture, and he was an alleged communist. And they will ultimately arrest him for some of his ties to a guy named Whitaker Chambers, who had ties with Russians.

And Alger Hiss died, I think, in the late nineties, he went to his death claiming that he was not a communist. But there are some scholars who have gone to the Russian archives and they’ve found evidence that he indeed was a communist or had communist affiliations and he had a handler and all of that stuff.

So, Benson buys into this, that the first communist cell in the U S government is in his shop. And so he’s really unnerved by this. And one of the first things that he does in 1953, he instructs his underlings to look for people within his department, the sprawling government bureaucracy, look for anyone who’s written in favor of the collectivist state, who’s written in favor of Joseph Stalin, who has family ties in Russia. And they actually find a guy. There’s a guy named Wolf Ladejinsky, who worked in the Department of State and he was transferred over to the Department of Agriculture, thinking that’s where his skillset was better suited.

And anyway, Benson was immediately alarmed, he and his associates, because Wolf Ladejinsky was a Russian-born Jew and he still had family behind the Iron Curtain. And because of those family connections, Benson thought that Ladejinsky was a communist. And so what did he do? He purges him from the government. Doesn’t give him any due process. Doesn’t give them a chance to defend himself. And the media of course are angry, much as they were with Joseph McCarthy’s baseless allegations. And they went after Benson. And the long story short of this is that it becomes a huge public relations debacle for President Eisenhower, who hasn’t been in office but what, a year, at this point.

And the press would ask for evidence, how do you know he’s a communist? And Benson would say, it’s privileged material that you are not at liberty to see. It’s a confidential FBI file. And I might just stop the story here for a quick second. When I wrote my book, “Watchman on the Tower,” I submitted a FOIA request, a Freedom of Information Act Request, and I got Wolf Ladejinsky’s FBI file that Benson had always claimed was sensitive and that revealed where the goodies, where the bodies were buried, so to speak.

 I got the FBI file and that was the exact opposite was true. They said that there were no ties to communism. He had worked with distinction, the Secretary of State the file said. He had written dozens of articles condemning the collective state, condemning communism, condemning socialism.

This is all in his FBI file. And regrettably, either Benson didn’t know about the file, or he was telling him.

But nonetheless Ike told Benson to cool it on the red baiting and focus on why I brought you into the cabinet, which was to scale back socialized agriculture. You need to cut farm subsidies, forget about the red baiting stuff, the McCarthy stuff, that guy’s nuts anyway, Eisenhower thought, and just focus on scaling back farm subsidies.

And so, Benson did that. And as you can imagine, that if you are a farmer living in Utah or Idaho or Kansas or anywhere, and you have a government official who wants to cut back your domestic livelihood, your domestic economy, it’s going to present challenges. Because these folks are burdened with this very unpredictable and capricious farm economy. And they rely on these subsidies to pay their rent, to keep their equipment operating and to put food on their tables. And now Benson, he’s the frontline guy bearing the bad news that we’re going to cut your farm subsidies.

And so he announces these draconian policies at a series of public relations events, and farmers will show up in some instances and they’ll throw eggs at him. One farmer will take his boot off and chuck his boot at Benson as he’s talking. And they berate him in the national news media. And before too long, a number of Republicans go to Eisenhower and they’ll say, Mr. President, the election, your reelection is coming up in 1956. You got to drop this guy. He is like a lightning rod. Nobody likes him. He’s going to sink your ticket.

SHEFFIELD: And it was this really interesting dynamic at play here because Eisenhower was this universally beloved politician. And he didn’t really have a lot of scandals. But then there was Benson who was almost universally loathed.

HARRIS: So here’s the interesting part about this, and this is context for something I’ll talk about in a minute, how Benson turns on him after he leaves office. But Eisenhower knows that Benson is difficult, but here’s the important thing. Benson is only doing what Eisenhower wanted him to do, which was to scale back government subsidies. This wasn’t Benson’s idea entirely. He supports this, of course, but this is what Ike and the rest of the Republican Party, at least the conservatives want him to do.

But of course, Benson’s the guy that takes the brunt of all the criticism, and as any good government official knows, your job is to fall on the proverbial sword and protect the president, if you will. So Eisenhower knows this, and he feels some kind of affinity to Benson. And so, to Eisenhower’s credit, in terms of being loyal, he shrugs off the Republican congressmen, Republican senators. He just shrugs off the idea that we’re going to drop Benson as a cabinet official. Yeah, they’re saying you’ve got to drop this guy. You’ll never get reelected in 1956 during your second term.

And even the Mormon prophet, a guy named David O. McKay, flies to Washington DC, and he meets with Eisenhower and he says, Mr. President, if you need to relieve Secretary Benson of his duties, please understand that we’ll support that. And we’ll welcome him back home to his full-time church ministry. So, McKay is giving Ike a way out to drop Benson from the cabinet. And I might add that Benson is so unpopular that he tenders a letter of resignation to Eisenhower. This is in the Eisenhower presidential papers.

And he just says, I don’t want to be the source of your loss in 1956. We’ve accomplished a lot of good things together, but I think it’s in the best interest of you, the cabinet and perhaps even our country if I resign and go back home. And Eisenhower rips up the letter and says, no, I’m going to keep you. I need you, Ezra.

And so on that basis alone, Benson changes his mind and stays on for a second term. But his secretaryship becomes so volatile that by 1958, when all eyes are turning towards the 1960 election, Dick Nixon, the vice president, who was never closed with Benson, never close with Ike for that matter, either. In fact, Eisenhower refused to endorse Nixon in the ’60 election.

But anyway, Nixon went to Eisenhower, and he said, look, I’m going to run in 1960. I can’t have Benson anywhere near my candidacy. In fact, I’m going on a speaking tour to hook up with farmers pretty soon. Can you call Benson to Europe? Get him out of the country. He’ll be toxic to my election. And so, Eisenhower complies with this request, and they send Benson to Europe to visit some farm communities there.

And that was by design to get him out of the country so that Nixon could meet with farmers in the Midwest without having Benson’s shadow over him. So, there’s a lot of interesting politics going on with Benson and in what a controversial secretary he was.

SHEFFIELD: And around that time, Benson was also trying to get in with J. Edgar Hoover, who was the first director of the FBI at the time. And Hoover himself was quite far to the right, but even he thought Benson was extremist is that correct?

HARRIS: So maybe we should fast forward the story a little bit. But in the 1950s, Benson was very deferential towards authorities, it’s the way he was raised as part of his religious upbringing. And Benson liked J. Edgar Hoover because he was a no-nonsense director. He came to power in 1922 and he’ll serve until 1971-72, the longest-serving FBI director in the history of the country. That was true, then it’s true today.

Anyway, so in the 1950s, Benson, he would send writings, his own personal church writings to Hoover, just as a courtesy I suppose, or maybe he was trying to convert him to Mormonism, who knows? But he would do that as a courtesy and he also requested a background check of Hoover, which, believe it or not, wasn’t required in those days. And so, he just said to Hoover, he said, look, I want to come to Washington with a spotless record. And I want you to know that I’m spotless. So please do this background check.

And so, Hoover complies and interviews some of Benson’s fellow apostles, interviews some of his family members, his work associates in the cooperative industry, and gets this glowing report about Benson. That he’s an effective speaker. He’s a man of high character. He loves his country. He loves capitalism. He’s everything that a communist is not. And so, they develop this cordial relationship in the 1950s.

And then after Benson leaves the cabinet, when Eisenhower’s second term is up in 61, in January when the next president is sworn in, Jack Kennedy. Benson becomes affiliated with the most extreme anticommunist organization in the United States called the John Birch Society.

And he learns about the Birch society or starts to read their material the spring that he goes back to Salt Lake City to resume his duties as a Mormon apostle. And it’s at that time where he becomes indoctrinated into this controversial organization. And it’s controversial because it’s founder, a guy named John Welch founded the society in 1958 after a fallen World War II soldier named John Birch.

John Welch is an interesting character. He made millions in the candy corporation. Some of your viewers might like Mars candy, the caramel lollipop. And so that’s a Welch creation. So, he made millions of dollars, retired a young man and then formed this anti-communist organization. And he wrote a book called the Blue Book that was supposed to be for just private consumption among his closest friends and advisers.

But by 1961, it gets leaked to the press and Benson reads a copy of the Blue Book. And he’s taken in by some of its major assertions. One of which is that Dwight Eisenhower, Benson’s former boss, was a communist and that John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State with whom Benson had worked was also a communist.

And that Alan Dulles, John Foster’s brother, who was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, he too, was a communist. And Milton Eisenhower, Dwight’s brother and close confidant, was also a communist. So you have this retired businessman, turned millionaire, turned anticommunist alleging that a five-star general and his closest advisers are all communists and Benson just takes this all in, lock, stock and barrel. And he writes Hoover in the early sixties, and he said, ‘Did you know this, he’s a communist and what’s going on?’

And Hoover, what had been a cordial relationship in the 1950s when Benson was in Washington, now it’s turned sour because even though Hoover is very conservative, Hoover is not an extremist in terms of his politics. And so, he refuses to dignify Benson’s comments. He refuses to write him back saying that I received your 10-page letter in which you spell out the allegations that, that Ike and his associates are commies, he won’t dignify any of this stuff.

But in private, Hoover writes some of his closest aides and he says that quote, “Anybody who says that General Eisenhower is a communist, has something seriously wrong with him.”

And Barry Goldwater, one of the most prominent conservative Republicans in the U.S. Senate at the time, when he was asked about the Blue Book and Welch’s allegations, he told one of his friends, he said, if I were you, I would burn every copy you may have of the Blue Book. It is a dangerous book and it will get us into trouble. Meaning that if we flirt with these extremely dangerous and far right ideas that this beloved American president and war leader is a communist, it’s going to burn us. And so Benson latches onto these radical ideas and Hoover wants nothing to do with it.

SHEFFIELD: And so, Benson after he’s gone back to normal church service after serving in the Eisenhower administration, he decides to not only go after people he sees as communists in the American government, but he also decides to go after the progressive or liberal tradition within Mormonism— which many people may find this hard to believe now, but there actually was a pretty large Mormon progressive tradition at that time.

HARRIS: So Mormons today, of course, they still identify more than any other religious group in the United States identifies as Republican. And this shift to the GOP, the Grand Old Party, begins in 1972, but prior to that, Mormon supported Democratic Party politics. In fact, Mormons had received more government assistance during the Great Depression and the New Deal than any other place in the country per capita.

So, all of these impoverished Mormon farmers are relying on these government handouts from the New Deal, during the Great Depression. Even to the point where the church president at the time, a guy named Heber J. Grant, he told Mormons, he said: ‘Don’t support Roosevelt. Don’t vote for him. You’re becoming too dependent upon the government dole. Don’t do that.’

And of course, your readers or listeners may know that the Roosevelt was elected for four terms. So he comes to power and is sworn in 1933, and he dies in office during his fourth term in 1945. We’ve never had a president serve more than two terms. And of course, there’s a constitutional amendment in the early fifties after Roosevelt’s dead, so that this won’t happen again. But anyway, Roosevelt creates the modern welfare state with his New Deal and Mormons, like a lot of other Americans who need this assistance will tap into this, these policies. And the church doesn’t like it because they think it’s a free handout. And so in the 1930s, the church creates its—

SHEFFIELD: And the church didn’t like the idea of Mormons being dependent on non-Mormons. I think that’s a crucial thing to point out here because after the murder of Joseph Smith, Mormonism for a long time was extremely anti-American. When they moved to Utah, they left the United States. It was part of Mexico at that time. So, there’s always been this strong kind of anti-American, or at least anti-government identity to Mormonism.

HARRIS: It’s a religion that’s born out of the wilderness of Idaho in Utah and also Nevada and Arizona and parts of California. These are farming communities. And so, you do what you do on your own. You don’t rely on the government. And if you do need assistance, it should be your church helping you.

And so that’s the whole idea of the 1930s is that it’s not that the church leaders didn’t think that the Latter-day Saints in Utah or anywhere else needed assistance. It’s just that the church should help them. They should help themselves. There should be local charity. Similar to what we hear today, right? There are hardcore conservatives to don’t think the government has a role in this sort of assistance. It’s our faith communities. It’s our churches and charities who should do this.

Of course, I would always say paranthetically, that’s all fine. And but the fact of the matter is, churches and charities cannot sustain grandma if she’s in a nursing home for 10 years, they don’t have the capital to pay that average of whatever it is, 9,000 bucks a month, the cost of keeping grandma in a nursing home. Or if you have, special needs disabled person or somebody who’s on a serious dose of medications for their health issues.

So anyway, Heber J. Grant asked Mormons to not support the New Deal. Don’t vote for Franklin Roosevelt. And what’s interesting is Heber J. Grant’s a Democrat, albeit a conservative Democrat. And so he hates Roosevelt the leader of his party and he supports Roosevelt’s competitors.

But anyway, Mormons ignore it. They vote for Franklin Roosevelt and they also vote for the second, most robust liberal in the 20th century, a guy named Lyndon Baines Johnson who’s essentially Franklin Roosevelt on steroids. And Lyndon Johnson extends the welfare state. He’s a big FDR supporter and he creates new government programs like Medicaid and Medicare, like Headstart.

I sometimes ask my students, when you think of welfare, what do you think of? And they think of food stamps. That’s another Johnson program that they just have it in their mind ’ I’m not on welfare because I’m not on food stamps’ or ‘I’m on welfare because I’m on food stamps.’

But then I ask them a rhetorical question. I’ll say, how many of you run federal Pell grants to be here or at least to subsidize part of your education? And I don’t want to be personal and have them raise their hands and so I’ll tell them it’s rhetorical don’t raise your hand. But how many of you, yourself or others who have federal Pell grants? And that’s a welfare program and they don’t typically think of it that way.

So Headstart, getting these young children, having the bus come pick up these, four and five-year-old preschoolers, that’s a, it’s another welfare program. So, Johnson creates all of these welfare programs and Utahns, once again, they support them, they support Johnson. And then by 1972, there’s a massive transition mostly in Utah, but also in Idaho, in which they start to support the Grand Old Party, the Republican Party.

And the reason why there’s a transition then is for two reasons. One is Utahns are like evangelicals, they’re upset with Roe v. Wade, the abortion case in the early seventies, they don’t like civil rights. This idea that African-Americans would be demanding racial equality. They don’t like the women’s liberation movement, as you pointed out Matt, at the beginning of the hour today.

But more than that, they’ve been told by Apostle Benson that the Democratic Party is really a communist organization. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And so, Benson had spent a good part of his ministry besmirching the Democratic Party. In fact, he wrote a book in 1962 called The Red Carpet and he argued that America’s descent into communism was a three-stage process. It was like a red carpet. You walk down that carpet and ultimately, it’s going to take you to a place where you don’t want to be.

And that the first part was you become a Democrat. This is Franklin Roosevelt. Then you become a socialist. And then, of course, you descend into communism. And so, Benson was like a lot of hardcore conservatives at the time who thought that FDR was, in fact, a communist. There were too many government programs that just reeked of communism. And so, Benson had warned against the Democratic Party ever since the 1940s. And by the early seventies, he gave this high-profile interview with a reporter. And he said that you cannot be a good Mormon and be a Democrat, they’re incompatible.

And what happened was tons of liberal Mormons, moderate to liberal Mormons complained to the church, president a guy named Spencer Kimball, saying that, where does this apostle get off saying this? I’m a Democrat and I’m a good Mormon. And in some cases, I’m a Democrat and I’m a Mormon Bishop, or I’m a Democrat and I’m a Mormon General Authority, which is a term for a high-ranking leader. And so, there were some apostles that were Democrats. And so, Benson is telling the world that you can’t be a good Mormon and a good Democrat.

And Spencer Kimball calls him in. He says, look Apostle Benson, you can’t say this. For one, it’s not true. And for two, you’re harming our missionary efforts. We’re trying to missionize in Northern Europe. Those people love socialism. Knock this stuff off. And Benson had also said a bunch of things that were very critical of the civil rights movement, the NAACP, and Dr. King.

So, Benson had been talking about Dr. King and the civil rights movement being communist inspired. And a Kimball called him in, and he said, stop that too. We’re trying to missionize and bring the Mormon gospel into Africa, and if you’re calling this iconic American leader a communist, that’s bad for business, nobody’s going to want to talk to us. And even though they’re in Africa, word gets back what you’re saying because Dr. King has an international following. And I might add paranthetically, that the Mormon church didn’t give blacks the priesthood at the time.

So, from 1852 to 1978, a 126-year period, the Mormon church had denied its priesthood. This lay Mormon priesthood. They denied them to blacks and also denied blacks the right to enjoy the full privileges of Mormon temples. So, they had a second class status in the church.

SHEFFIELD: And this is another parallel here between Mormons and white evangelicals, because both groups kind of saw their racial positions as being in a minority. Very clearly. And this kind of led to a sense of persecution in both evangelicals and Mormons at that time.

HARRIS: Yeah, Benson recognized that he admired evangelicals, not the theology necessarily, but he admired their ability to cluster around certain political issues like ERA and the abortion cases. And in 1980, he absolutely admired their ability to put Ronald Reagan, who’s not very religious, into office, but Reagan supported their political views.

 Benson thought that the Mormon church should create a voting bloc as well, like the Moral Majority and some of these folks, and they should canvass door to door, and they should use various campaigning techniques to get their people out to vote. And they can even after church, go over en masse and go vote the voting precinct.

Anyway, Benson thought that the church should endorse a particular political candidate. And the church leaders didn’t agree with that. In fact, Benson gave a speech at the church’s flagship university called Brigham Young University in February of 1980. And it’s one of the most controversial speeches that he had ever given, which says something because he gave a number of controversial speeches. And the context is important because he’s the second most senior apostle in the church, meaning that when the church president Kimball died, Benson by virtue of his seniority would be the new church president.

That’s how it works with Mormons it’s. They don’t vote to see who the next president will be. It’s this most senior apostle. So, Benson is the most senior apostle at the time, or the second-most senior apostle at the time. And Kimball has poor health. And so most Mormons believe that Benson is going to be the new church president sooner than later.

And so, in 1980, he gives this speech, and he says two really controversial things in the speech at BYU in front of 20 plus thousand people. He said one, that the current church prophet is more important than a dead prophet. Number two, the church prophet can speak for God in political affairs. And this sends shockwaves throughout the church. Dozens and dozens of Latter-day Saints complained to the church president. This guy is going to politicize the church. We know what he’s doing. That when he becomes a church president, he’s going to endorse the Republican Party and Spencer Kimball calls him in yet again.

And so he called them in earlier, when he said that comment about the Democratic Party, right? You can’t be a good Mormon, a good Democrat. And that was like four years earlier, but he calls him in again in 1980, and he makes some apologize before all of his colleagues in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and also the First Presidency. Apologize for doing this. We told you to leave politics alone and you won’t do it.

And so they make him apologize. And Kimball, who was not a guy that liked conflict, he wasn’t what we’d call a red personality. It’s a white personality. It’s docile. But boy, he had a temper. And his temper could rise pretty quick if you push the wrong buttons. And so, Kimball didn’t think his apology to the Quorum of the Twelve was sufficiently contrite. So he made him come back the following week and apologize to all of the General Authorities, which could number in the low one hundreds. So, he has to apologize again, Kimball is humiliating this senior church leader by making him apologize.

SHEFFIELD: But he did not make him apologize publicly.

HARRIS: He wrote an apology, or the church handlers probably wrote it, the legal team possibly. But there is an apology in his papers that I’ve seen for what he said, but it’s not clear if he delivered it. And moreover, it’s not clear who wrote it. My sense is he didn’t write it. It doesn’t read like him.

But anyway, so the church is trying to move away from this idea that you have to endorse conservative politics to be a good Mormon. And Spencer Kimball, the church president, is very globally minded. He wants to bring Mormonism into Africa. He had lifted the ban that the restriction on blacks in the priesthood in 1978, so that he could take the church into black Africa.

He was very careful about saying that you can be a good Mormon and a good socialist. He never said communist, though. But he said you could be a good Mormon and a good socialist, and you can live in Canada and in a Scandinavian country and support those politics. We’ll take you. We want to bring our gospel to you.

And so, Kimball died in 1985 and Ezra Taft Benson became the new leader. And there were a lot of people in the church were really worried because he had been trying to radicalize the church for a long time. And in many ways, he succeeded because he had a rather large following of Mormons who are members of the John Birch Society. They quoted Benson more than any other church apostle, because they loved his politics. They bought into his conspiratorial worldview, that it wasn’t just that Dr. King was a communist. Wasn’t just that Eisenhower was a communist, but also that there were sinister forces within the government. Today, we would call it the Deep State, but there were sinister forces within the government that were acting contrary to America’s long history of capitalism and democracy.

And he frequently talked about these political sub-themes about conspiracy and these sinister forces. And the fact that he was a high-ranking government position for eight years, gave him credibility. It gave him status. And I know, I was there! And so Latter-day Saints of a very, ultra-conservative bent, they loved this stuff. They quoted him.

And what they don’t know is, that by the 1980s, when he’s the church president, there’s been this 30-year pushed to muzzle him, to sort of calm him down. They don’t know this is all going on behind the scenes. And we’ll jump into politics just for a quick second, so when he’s alive, his presidency is from 1985 to the time he dies in 1994.

And the church will start to see the residual effect of his radical legacy when the church members in Utah and Arizona, they don’t want to support the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday because King’s a communist. And that’s, of course, they’re getting this from Benson and also Benson’s goodfriend, Cleon Skoussen. Also, a lot of Mormons are supporting extreme third-party candidates like Bo Gritz. In 1992, Bo Gritz got all of these votes in Utah and certain Idaho counties. That alarmed the Mormon church leaders—

SHEFFIELD: I think my parents voted for him (laughs) .

HARRIS: And so this is interesting, Bo Gritz had met with Benson. And he was, of course, bragging this up. I met with Benson and Gritz alleged that Benson supported his politics. And when the church handlers, the PR people in particular, heard this, they’re like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. Bo Gritz, you can’t say this, you can’t say this.’ Because they’re trying to move away from the clutches of right-wing extremism.

They also went on record, the church leaders, and they said that anyone —this is in the early nineties—anyone who affiliates with the John Birch Society could be considered in apostasy, that is not in the good graces of the church. And these Mormon Birchers, they write into church headquarters, Benson’s still alive, but he’s in poor health, I mean really poor health. He can’t even talk, he’s got feeding tubes in his body, and he just can’t talk. But they’re writing him letters. They’re saying, ‘Dear President Benson, do you know what they’re saying?’ Meaning the other church leaders. ‘I’m a Bircher and you’ve told us to join the Birch Society. Now they’re telling us that we’re an apostasy if we’re affiliating with this group.’

 And they’re really confused. And they also accused Ezra Taft benson’s two counselors, a guy named Gordon Hinckley and a guy named Thomas Monson, of usurping Ezra Taft Benson’s authority, because they’re the moderates that are leading the charge to cut back on right-wing extremism.

And one last thing about this, is that they also, the church leaders, the moderate church leaders, they changed the church handbook. And in 1990, during Benson’s presidency, he’s in poor health, in 1990, they put a little clause in the church handbook that says, it’s okay to receive government assistance if you need it. Don’t be relying on it, but it’s okay. And that was the first time that had ever been stated publicly. Because prior to that, Benson had always said that don’t ever take a handout from the government it’s legalized plunder. That’s what he called government welfare, legalized plunder.

Anyway, one last thought I guess, is the church led a purge in the early nineties. They started to cut off excommunicate, that is remove from the records of the church, survivalist extremists and John Birchers and this happened during Benson’s presidency. And whether he was aware that this was going on or not, it’s hard to know because he was not well.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that’s definitely very interesting. But let’s just go back for a second in terms of the political third parties and Benson himself. So, a lot of people aren’t aware that the American conservative movement originally wasn’t about Republicans entirely. And in fact, there were a lot of people in various far right third parties and were trying to get into the Democratic Party as well.

And they were also very interested in the American Independence Party, which is a party that grew out of George Wallace’s segregationist third-party run for the president when he mounted that. And Benson was one of those people. So, can you talk about his involvement and interest in that American Independent Party for a bit?

HARRIS: Yeah, so I think it’s important to note that Benson wasn’t just this extremist Mormon person. He had a national following. And he was recruited to run for the presidency in the 1960s on two occasions. The Birchers had created this front group. When I say front group, they didn’t want to reveal that they were behind it because they were so controversial at this point.

And this is in 1965. They created this front group where Benson would run. It’s called the Committee of 1776. So, the play on of course, the year that the country’s declared independence from Great Britain.

And so, the Committee of 1776 it was formed by the Birchers and they recruited Benson to run for the president and he was all over it. Now he’s an apostle. And of course, he has to get approval from his church leaders to do this, but they recruited a very conservative Dixiecrat guy named Strom Thurman from South Carolina to run as his VP. And Strom Thurman has the dubious distinction of being the longest, the most vigorous U.S. Senator to oppose civil rights. In fact, he led the longest in 1957, he stages the filibuster gets a civil rights bill the longest in U.S. history. And the ticket collapsed within a year and a half or so because Strom Thurman had just won reelection in 1964. And he wasn’t interested in running for the presidency, he didn’t think it was viable to run on a third-party ticket.

SHEFFIELD: And Barry Goldwater had just been destroyed also.

HARRIS: Barry Goldwater had just been humiliated in the 1964 election. And one of the reasons why Goldwater was humiliated, not the only reason of course, but it was this idea of civil rights. The Republican Party was split on civil rights. Some of the significant party leaders like Nelson Rockefeller, Dick Nixon, George Romney, another Mormon guy, moderate Republicans who support civil rights. They see the trajectory of where the country is going, and they argue that if the Republican Party doesn’t get on board with this, that the country’s going to run us over. And then you’ve got other people in the party like Barry Goldwater and others who opposed civil rights, not because King was a commie, they don’t believe that, but it’s because if you support civil rights, you’ll have to create a federal bureaucracy to oversee its enforcement. And so, Barry Goldwater opposes civil rights for federal reasons, it’ll create too much of a bloated bureaucracy. And therefore, we can’t support this. And incidentally, Goldwater will later regret this and change his mind and support civil rights.

But anyway, so it doesn’t look very good to have Benson whose church opposes full inclusion for black people, it doesn’t look very good to have him run on this ticket with Strom Thurmond and the church president basically said—

SHEFFIELD: Because Utah didn’t officially have segregation. Utah was not a Jim Crow state.

HARRIS: Correct.

SHEFFIELD: At least at that time.

HARRIS: No, hold on just a sec. They are a Jim Crow state, but it’s de facto segregation rather by circumstance, not by law.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

HARRIS: So anyway yeah, but no, Utah was very much segregated in the 1950s. But it’s again, by circumstance. It’s just the business owner saying I’m not going to hire black people, I’m not going to rent to you. I’m not going to sell you a house in a white neighborhood. There’s no law to support. This is just pure racism. Anyway, but whether it’s de jure or de facto, it’s all the same, in terms of the effect of dividing the state.

So, the church president, David O. McKay, told Benson, I’ll let you run with Thurmond, if it goes somewhere, let’s just see where it goes. But he’s really worried about it because of the church’s policy prohibiting black men and women from full inclusion in the church. In other words, McKay doesn’t want to bring criticisms to the church because of Benson’s presidential candidacy.

SHEFFIELD: And as I understand it, McKay himself kind of opposed that policy but he couldn’t really get rid of it or at least he wasn’t willing to.

HARRIS: He wasn’t willing to, that’s correct. That’s correct. He wasn’t willing to put a lot of muscle behind it to fight the hard-liners that would be correct.

And so the ticket collapsed in 1966 because Thurmond really didn’t have buy-in. He just got reelected in 64 from South Carolina and just didn’t think it’d be good for his career. So, he pretty much tells Benson and the Birch guys, ‘Look, you never really consulted with me. You just put my name out there. I told you I would consider it. And the next thing I know, I’m on your literature. Come on.’

So that doesn’t work. They couldn’t raise money. In the meantime, Alabama’s conservative, Democratic governor comes calling. He wants to run a 1968. So about eight months after the Benson -Thurmond ticket collapsed, Wallace goes to Benson and he says, ‘I don’t like what my party is doing with civil rights. And I know you don’t like what your party, the Republican Party, has done with civil rights. Let’s form the American Independent Party. Let’s form our own voice here.’

And so in 1967, George Wallace will form this independent party predicated upon segregation and law and order. And law and order, of course, are buzzwords for ’ we have to keep black people from protesting in the streets. We can make political capital out of this.’ So, Wallace understands this very well. Nixon understands as well. Ronald Reagan certainly understands it. These are dog whistles for racist views.

Anyway, so Wallace invites Ezra Taft Benson, and his son Reed Benson to Alabama in February of 1968, and they have a three-hour meeting. They’ve never met before. And Benson says ‘Mr. Wallace, I need to get permission from my church leader, David O. McKay, to run with you. And I can tell you right now, he wasn’t very happy with the last run with Thurmond. I don’t think he’s going to be very happy with you, but it’s worth a shot.’

And so, they bring Wallace to Salt Lake City to meet with the aging church leader, David O. McKay. And McKay just unequivocally says, no, I’m not going to give you this blessing. We need Ezra for our church leadership. Plus, you have a number of fringe figures that support your ticket, the neo-Nazis, the Birch Society, the White Citizens Council, that’ll harm our church. We’re already under heavy assault because of our views of black people, our theology, and our anti-civil rights views. And having a senior church leader run with you would be just too much.

And so President McKay absolutely just shoots this idea down and Benson’s not happy about it. And he’s a persistent guy, and he asked McKay another time. Can you reconsider? And McKay snapped at him. I’ve made my mind up. No, you have a higher calling as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in your church then for running for political office.

And so, Wallace next turns to Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, and invites Colonel Sanders to run with him—that doesn’t pan out. And then instead, he settles on a Vietnam military leader named Curtis LeMay, who’s a controversial figure himself. And Benson is so taken it in with the American Independent Party, that he invites Curtis LeMay to come to BYU, to speak to the students.

And also, I’m going to say one other thing that I think your listeners will find interesting, is that when Benson considers running with George Wallace, he gives the most famous talk he’d ever given. It’s called the “The Proper Role of Government.” And this is the context is he’s using this as a campaign address should he get permission to run with Wallace.

So, he writes it presumptuously before he gets the permission and he delivers it in several venues. He goes to the Birch Society meetings and delivers it to them. He delivers it in the Mormon General Conference. This is a biannual meeting of Mormons where they hear from their leaders.

Well what does it say? He offers a blueprint to completely destroy the welfare state, to get rid of it. And he calls Medicaid and Medicare communist programs that are destroying our country. And the proper sphere of government, that speech that Benson had created in 1968 as a campaign speech to run with Wallace, it becomes the basis upon which the the American Independent Party in Utah is formed.

And you mentioned at the onset of the hour of the Bundy family. Cliven Bundy is a member of the American Independent Party. At least he was, he probably still is I’m sure. And Cliven Bundy helped to form the Independent Party in the 1970s in Utah. And they take as their guiding light Benson’s the proper sphere of government speech.

And so the other person who’s a part of the American Independent Party is a guy named LaVoy Finicum. And he is the only casualty of that month-long standoff between the Bundys and law enforcement. He’s the guy that drew his revolver on law enforcement, and they shot and killed him. And so he’s a part of the American Independent Party in Utah as well.

And at LaVoy Finnegan’s funeral, they quoted ad infinitum Ezra Taft Benson’s speeches and sermons along with Cleon Skousen, so they’re driven by this right wing ideology, for sure.

SHEFFIELD: You mentioned Cleon Skousen, he’s somebody who isn’t widely known among people who are not steeped in this far-right political culture. So why don’t you just tell everybody who he was and how he’s become relevant in recent years?

HARRIS: So Cleon Skousen, a quick bio on him. He’s trained in law, received a bachelor’s of law degree from George Washington University in the 1930s. Today, we’d call it a Juris Doctorate. So he’s trained in the law, and he went to work for the FBI in the 1930s. And he was there for a short period before he taught religion at BYU. He’s got no credentials to teach religion, but they wanted him because of his political voice on the faculty. They thought that some of the BYU faculty were becoming too liberal, even socialistic.

And so they wanted Skousen in as a counterpoint to this. And so Skousen doesn’t have a PhD in Biblical languages, no training whatsoever. So he’s really there just for to serve a political purpose to counteract the liberals. And he, in 1958, when he’s on the faculty at BYU—

I should back up, he had a short stint after he left the FBI. He became the police chief in Salt Lake City for a very short period. But anyway, he wrote this book when he was a police chief in Salt Lake called The Naked Communist. It was published in 1958, the same year that J Edgar Hoover’s book on communism was published and both Hoover’s book and Scousers book were national best-sellers, Newsweek magazine, Time magazine, they had promoted these books.

And Skousen became a household figure in the Mormon church, when the church president David O. McKay urged all Latter-day Saints to read The Naked Communist in General Conference. So it becomes a bestseller in Mormon circles overnight. It’s a national bestseller. Even more importantly, Cleon Skousen is on the John Birch Society speakers bureau. He’s not an official member of the Birch Society but he’s on their speakers bureau. And he’s going around the country giving these anticommunist speeches, making a lot of money. And he uses his credentials, his time and working in Washington, DC in the FBI to his advantage.

He says stuff like ‘You’ve got to listen to me because I worked closely with Director Hoover. I was his closest advisor and he confided in me about what’s going on in the country.’ So he’s using his connection to Hoover and so Mormons and non-Mormons alike who hear him on the Birch speakers circuit, they write back to Hoover and they say: ‘He says, he was your top Lieutenant. Can you verify that?’

And Hoover writes back, ‘I didn’t even know who this guy is.’ And then Hoover has some of his underlings look and verify that Skousen did, in fact, work for the bureau. And they did, they verified that he did. But he was like four layers of bureaucracy away from the director.

So Hoover never knew who he was and Skousen was using it to his advantage. And this is all in Cleon Skousen’s FBI file. So Skousen becomes an effective anticommunist speaker, along with Benson, wasn’t just speaking to Mormon audiences. Benson was speaking to civic organizations. He was speaking to Southern Baptists. He’s on the stump circuit with Billy Hargis, the segregationist Baptist preacher.

So Benson’s one of the few Mormon leaders who has a wider relationship with the evangelical world. And we tend to think of, if your listeners are conversant with some of this literature, Baptist preachers or Protestant ministers who are opposed to communism, we tend to forget that Benson was there with them. And he, too was preaching at some of the same revivalist meetings.

And in fact, Billy Hargis had a evangelical magazine. In the 1970s, Benson had contributed three articles. And Mormons and evangelicals never really got along. They were always distrustful of one another. We see this sort of come to a climax with Mitt Romney’s run in ‘08 and 2012. But anyway, in the 1970s Benson shared their views. And so he wrote for Billy Hargis’s magazines, but he identified himself as a citizen of Salt Lake City. He never said Mormon apostle.

And obviously, the implication is ‘I don’t want to let you know that I’m a Mormon apostle, because I don’t want you to turn your nose up at what I’m saying, focus on my argument, less of what my title is.’

And so that was a little rhetorical strategy that Benson had used some times when he worked with groups like this, he concealed his identity as a high-ranking Mormon prelate and usually used his identity as a member of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential cabinet. That had more cachet among evangelical readers than claiming that he was an apostle.

Anyway, so Benson, so they turn him down from Wallace and by this point, McKay died in 1970 and conservative Mormons approached the new church president, a guy named Harold Lee, and they said ‘We want Benson to run for the presidency on the American Independent Party.’

And they asked Benson to approach the church president. And Lee and Benson were boyhood friends. They both grew up in Idaho together, just a few miles apart, in these small Idaho communities. And Lee was a tempestuous figure. He didn’t have the patience of David O. McKay. And so when Benson and other Latter-day Saints approached him to let Benson run for presidential ticket, Lee just yelled, ‘Don’t ever ask me again! No!’ And so Lee just put the kibosh on it.

And so Benson had by the 1970s, he went around touting the Independent Party. And this was at the time where the Utah Independent Party was born. And then by 1980, when the Republican Party came to its senses, according to Benson, he decided to come back to the GOP and support his friend, a man whom he liked and admired, Ronald Reagan. And so from 1980 to the end of his life, he stuck with the Republican Party, but he left the Republican Party for awhile over civil rights.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that’s right. And there were quite a few other people who were in the sort of far-right Republican circles who were very interested in the American Independent Party at that time. Not just Benson. One of them was Richard Viguerie who went on to become this very, very wealthy fundraiser and direct-mail kingpin. He was intimately involved with the American Independent Party.

So we’ve talked a lot about far right Mormons here, but as you kind of mentioned earlier, while Benson and his heirs found some national political prominence, within the LDS church, the extremist-survivalist right has not really been in charge for a while. And so there’s kind of this tension now between the conservative leaders and their more extreme members, especially in regards to the COVID 19 pandemic and various public health measures. Mormons are kind of like the Republican Party in miniature in that regard.

But because the Mormon religious hierarchy is based on seniority rather than voting, while the Republican Party nationally has rejected the conservatism of Mitt Romney, that sort of ideology is still running things within Mormonism, right?

HARRIS: Mormons are, they’re definitely conservative theologically and politically, but they are different from at least a number of evangelicals. Take abortion for example. Mormons argue that abortion is permissible under the care of a physician, of course, if the life and health of the mother or the child is in jeopardy. And we see this recent Texas law, where, of course there are no exceptions, even for that.

So Mormon stand apart. They’ve always at least for a long time, they’ve adopted that position. And they’ve never called abortion murder either, which is interesting. Also on immigration, Mormon leaders, I should say, have been welcoming of immigrants. If an immigrant comes into a Mormon worship service, there is absolutely no attempt to decide or to see if they’re there legally or not.

You come to church, we’re going to give you spiritual nourishment, spiritual sustenance. And if you’re not here legally, then that’s your business with the government, not ours. You come here, we’re going to nourish you. And so that’s created some hardship amongst some of the very ultra conservative folks in Idaho, in Utah, who don’t like that part about the church being so welcoming of immigrants.

In terms of the vaccinations, Mormons are experiencing this really interesting dilemma in that they sustain their leaders, the First Presidency, as prophets, seers, and revelators. It’s a pretty tall order to call yourself a prophet, seer, and a revelator like someone in the Bible, for example. And they will support Mormon leaders on probably 99.9% of anything they do and say. But with the vaccination, with the leaders coming out saying, we urge you to get vaccinated, they’re safe. Some of these folks are, they’re paying obeisance to Donald Trump and that ilk.

And it’s creating a hardship for the church leaders, because we’re witnessing on Facebook and various social media venues, some Latter-day Saints of long standing, they’re leaving the faith over this because they think the church is leading them astray when it comes to these vaccinations.

And these are the same folks, of course, who don’t want to wear. Who call it a hoax. They don’t want to social distance. And, I might say for your listeners, that today’s leader is a guy named Russell Nelson. He’s 97 years of age. And for a man that old, he’s got incredibly vigorous health, he’s a retired cardiologist. So he had a very successful career as a cardiologist, prior to his church ministry. He became an apostle in 1984. So that’s when he retired as a cardiologist.

So he’s not just any ordinary person. He’s also a medical doctor. And there’s another physician in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, I think he’s a cardiologist as well, who has been very active about getting vaccinated. And so Latter-day Saints, including some of folks that I know who are very hardcore in their political views on the right, this created a hardship for them, when their leaders told them to get vaccinated, but yet their political affiliates are telling them not to.

I’ve spoken and written at length on this, that one of the reasons why Latter-day Saints believe in these nefarious conspiracies is because of Benson and Skousen. They had planted these seeds for so many years, and we didn’t even go into the conspiracy theories. We talked about Eisenhower briefly being a communist. They believe we talked about Dr. King being a communist, but they believe that the United Nations was a communist organization. They believe that the government’s attempt to flouridate the water in the early 1960s as a communist undertaking.

So they had a number of conspiracy theories they entertained. And so it’s not surprising when you’ve been indoctrinated with this stuff for so long, that when somebody comes along on right-wing radio or social media and says these vaccinations are evil, they’re conspiratorial, the seeds have already been planted by some of their church leaders.

And the dilemma is today’s Mormon church leaders are trying to get rid of all that stuff because they think it’s harmful to the church, but yet there’s a sizeable number of Latter-day Saints in the United States today who still believe this. And that’s the challenge that the church leadership is having to navigate. They don’t want to lose these people to have them, leave the church and go somewhere else, but yet they don’t want to offend them. And that’s the tricky line that they’re having to walk.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. Sorry. But, a lot of the evangelical church leaders are having this same exact problem as well. They are vaccinated. They will say that they are if people ask them. But they feel like if they talk about it to their congregations, that their members will leave and in their case, it’s probably easier, it’s a lot easier for a evangelical church congregate to leave because you can just walk out the door and not come back. Whereas in Mormonism, there’s a lot of ties out there that bind you to the church leaders in terms of ceremonies and things like that.

HARRIS: Well, evangelicals are all over the place. There are obviously, there’s a number of, this is part of the problem too, with the evangelicals is some of them their leaders are, of course don’t get vaccinated. It’s a conspiratorial plot.

And then you do get other evangelicals are saying, we’ve got to do this. We’ve got to keep our churches open. We’ve got to keep them safe. And I think that there’s probably more, this is my opinion of course, there’s probably more diversity of thought on vaccinations and so forth in the evangelical community than there is in Mormonism simply because in the evangelical community, there’s a number of different umbrellas, right?

You’ve got liberal evangelicals like Jim Wallace, you’ve got conservative evan gelical leaders, whereas in Mormonism, it’s centrally controlled. And that’s the thing with evangelicals it’s not centrally controlled. And so depending on who you talk to and where you live, evangelical theology looks much different coming out of Dallas, Texas, that it doesn’t Brooklyn, New York, right?

SHEFFIELD: So the Public Religion Research Institute did a survey recently in July of about 5,000 people and they found that Mormons and white and Hispanic evangelicals were the groups with the highest percentage of people most likely to refuse Covid-19 vaccinations.

But that said, the majority of Mormons were vaccinated or said they were going to be. And so what you really have is this very sizable and vocal minority that is extremely anti-vaccine and they seem to be causing problems for the Mormon church leaders just like their counterparts in the evangelical world are for theirs.

HARRIS: We’re still getting some data on all of this. And we haven’t talked about the election yet, right? The number of Latter-day Saints who believe it was stolen, we do have a little bit of data on this, that evangelicals, I think it’s the last poll I saw was 64% of evangelicals think that the election was stolen. Mormons are next, I think at 44%, followed by Catholics at 38%.

My sense is that at least in the Mormon community, that the folks who are anti-vax are probably similarly situated with the election, they think it was stolen. You’ll see a connection between the two. And what’s interesting about the Mormon church leaders, they’re so sensitive to this because December of 2020, they updated the Mormon church handbook. So I referred earlier to updating at 1990, allowing, for government assistance. In December of 2020, they added a clause into the handbook that they had never added before, which is beware of conspiracy theories. And of course they’re talking about QAnon, right? And so for me as a scholar of American religion and American history, I’ll be curious to know the the Latter-day Saints who support QAnon, the election being stolen and the anti-vax.

And my sense is you believe one, you believe the other two. But we just, we don’t have that data yet. And I know that there are some social scientists out there who were working hard and fast to ultimately get that data.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it’s going to be interesting to see how it all shakes out, which sides end up prevailing or influencing the other. I guess we don’t really know for sure at this point. But it’s been a really great conversation. I appreciate you taking the time to join us today at Theory of Change.

HARRIS: I enjoyed it, man.

SHEFFIELD: All right. We’ve been speaking today with Matthew L. Harris. He’s the author of “Watchman on the Tower: Ezra Taft Benson and the Making of the Mormon Right.” And even if you’re not Mormon or never were Mormon, I still think it’s a book worth checking out because of how integrated the Mormon far-right in the evangelical far-right are in their history. And I hope that’s something that we’ve made clear today. So thank you for listening.

About This Podcast

Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.

In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with a solo guest to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.