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Where is Mormonism in the study of post-World War II Religion and Politics?

By: J Stuart - December 18, 2013

This past semester, I wrote a brief historiography of American religion and Evangelicalism in my American Religious History course. For the assignment, I read several books released in the past 5 years regarding this sub-field of American religious history (I addressed one of my favorites here). While writing the paper, my mind kept returning to a sermons of Ezra Taft Benson’s in 1962.

Benson’s sermon, excerpted below, highlights the possibilities of studying church leader’s political views and potential ramifications in shaping their believer’s politics.[1] For a bit of context, Benson gave these remarks after visiting the Soviet Union, and one year from the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The political and economic overtones not have been out of place in Evangelical sermons in the South at the same time (at least in my reading of post-WWII Evangelicalism and politics).

  • We must never forget exactly what communism really is. Communism is far more than an economic system. It is a total philosophy of life — atheistic and completely opposed to all that we hold dear. 
  • We believe in a moral code. Communism denies innate right or wrong. As W. Cleon Skousen has said in his timely book, The Naked Communist, the communist “has convinced himself that nothing is evil which answers the call of expediency.” This is a most damnable doctrine.
  • We believe in religion as a mode of life resulting from our faith in God. Communism contends that all religion must be overthrown because it inhibits the spirit of world revolution. Earl Browder, a long-time leader of the Communist Party in the U. S. A., said, “. . . we Communists do not distinguish between good and bad religions, because we think they are all bad.”
  • I visited the Soviet Union last fall…I saw no evidence that the communist leaders have altered their goal of world conquest—by economic if not by military means…[But]It takes a month’s wages to buy a pair of shoes and two months or more to buy a suit of clothes.  
  • What can you and I do to help meet this grave challenge from a godless, atheistic, cruelly materialistic system–to preserve our God-given free way of life? This is a choice land—all of America—choice above all others. Blessed by the Almighty, our forebears have made and kept it so. It will continue to be a land of freedom and liberty as long as we are able and willing to advance in the light of sound and enduring principles of right… Let us stand eternal watch against the accumulation of too much power in government. …Finally, let us all rededicate our lives and our nation to do the will of God. 

 

Researchers may be able to answer important questions stemming from this sermon and others. To what degree was Benson in line with other conservative religious leaders at the time? Did Mormons have a peculiar form of political conservatism, tied to their canonical statements on the Constitution? Who were the movers and shakers in Mormon anti-Communism outside of Benson, McKay, and Cleon Skousen—how did they work together to shape the Church’s public politics? How important was financial prosperity a key to Christian anti-communism? These questions could easily be extended to other religiously motivated political movements after the Second World War. These questions could also help historians of Mormonism move their projects further into the twentieth century.

The study of Mormonism seems particularly apt for studying Christian anti-Communism, beyond its embodiment in Ezra Taft Benson, David O. McKay, W. Cleon Skousen, and others. Such a study could elucidate particular strains of Mormon conservatism mingled with its theology; it could also show how Mormon yearnings to be both “Christian” and “American” may have led them to ally politically with Evangelicals–bringing Mormonism into broader historiographies and conversations.




[1] This could be said of Billy Graham, Fighting Bob Shuler, or Catholic leaders in this same time period.

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8 Comments

  1. Good stuff, Joey. Do you know if ETB, Skousen, et al. were reading any of these conservative evangelical authors/speakers? Did they ever reference their works or seek to collaborate with them?

    And did folks like Billy Graham, Bob Shuler, etc. ever see Mormons as allies in the fight against communism? I know Falwell would include Mormons in his “moral majority” of the 1980s, but don’t know about these earlier intersections between Mormonism and evangelicalism.

    Comment by Christopher — December 18, 2013 @ 8:53 am

  2. Unfortunately, I haven’t started digging in yet, but I would be surprised if they weren’t reading these authors. Benson’s support of the John Birch Society would suggest he was reading in those circles.

    This is only a guess (we’ll have to wait for Mason’s bio to hear more), but I would guess that Mormons weren’t seen as allies this early, at least as a religious group. I’m going to look through some materials at BYU and the CHL in a few weeks when I’m visiting, I should be able to tell you more then.

    Comment by J Stuart — December 18, 2013 @ 10:23 am

  3. Mormons were NOT seen as early allies. In fact, evangelicals even avoided alliances with Catholics during the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. (Beyond that, my expertise fails.) For instance, HUAC gets a slot of coverage in NAE circles, but McCarthy is avoided. The question becomes: why?

    ~Miles

    P.S. My own research indicates that even John Burch does not get much DIRECT play in mid-century evangelical (e.g. NAE) circles.

    Comment by Miles S. Mullin, II (@msmullin) — December 18, 2013 @ 10:33 am

  4. Thanks for commenting, Miles! This is great background information for a potential conference paper/dissertation!

    Comment by J Stuart — December 18, 2013 @ 10:49 am

  5. Joey, this is really interesting! If you decide to pursue it further, the Billy Graham archives at Wheaton offer fellowships to use their collections. It would make a great article or dissertation!

    Comment by Amanda HK — December 18, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

  6. That brings up a great line of questioning. I’ve never really delved into American politics but this sounds really interesting.

    Comment by Saskia — December 18, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

  7. Joey–

    Great post!

    Comment by Max — December 19, 2013 @ 10:20 am

  8. […] • I’ve encountered more and more about Protestantism and Catholicism in the history of the Cold War and anti-Communism. What about Mormonism? […]

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