Dallin H. Oaks, the former Utah Supreme Court justice turned leader of the LDS (or Mormon, as Satan calls it) Church, is the man appointed to extricate it from a political hole now more than fifty years in the digging. But before we talk more about him, let’s discuss the hole.
In 1964, Utah voters ratified Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Arizona’s Barry Goldwater, giving Johnson nearly 55% of the vote. At a time when Utah was far more homogenous than now, the thought of Mormons adopting Johnson’s liberalism on race and social issues panicked Mormon apostle Ezra Taft Benson, a devout member of the John Birch Society, a loosely-knit band of right-wing political extremists.
Benson’s loyalties aside, the Birch Society was derided even by the era’s vanguard conservatives. William F. Buckley’s biographer describes a meeting Goldwater held with Buckley and his fellow intellectual, Russell Kirk. Buckley called the Birchers a “menace” and Kirk urged Goldwater to repudiate the movement. Buckley followed with a 5,000 word criticism of Birch leader Robert Welch in National Review, leading (incidentally) to a spate of hate mail, threats, and cancellations. But while running for Governor of California in 1966, Ronald Reagan called the Birch Society a “lunatic fringe.” Republican leaders in Washington, handed political cover, joined Reagan and Buckley in their denunciations and the rout was on.
Benson survived two terms as Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture in the 1950s because of his influence among the Republican right (and his unlikely status as a distant member of the Taft family dynasty). But Benson doubled-down even as Birchers insisted that his old boss was a “communist.” Indeed, Benson’s voice was amplified even as conservatives were deplatforming other Birchers, because Benson could take the pulpit to address the LDS Church’s then-growing nationwide audience.1It is fair to note that Benson’s irresponsibility did not go unchallenged. Fellow Apostle Hugh B. Brown, in particular, confronted Benson behind the scenes. But of course, Brown was cognizant about the dangers of politicizing church matters in precisely the way Benson was not, and so Benson abused the bully pulpit in a way Brown did not. And, he could do so with the imprimatur of a church that considers dissent a synonym of apostasy. His audience was a captive one.
It is against this backdrop that in 1967, Benson mounted the pulpit and delivered an unhinged screed against the Civil Rights Movement. In a talk entitled Trust in the Arm of Flesh—but later published by Deseret Book under the title “Civil Rights: Tool for Communist Deception”—Benson unloaded on his real and/or perceived enemies. Set aside, for a moment, his references to Blacks as the “seed of Cain.” Such references may be the least offensive parts of his talk. Benson went far beyond, grandiloquently declaring, for instance, that:
There is no doubt that the so-called civil rights movement as it exists today is used as a Communist program for revolution in America just as agrarian reform was used by the Communists to take over China and Cuba.
Hilariously, Benson claimed that his “shocking statement can be confirmed by an objective study of Communist literature and activities and by knowledgeable Negroes and others who have worked within the Communist movement.” Uh-huh. Please do.
Then, Benson condescendingly explained that the Civil Rights Movement would effect its Communist overthrow using a three-step process. First, it would “create hatred” by “playing up and exaggerating real grievances.” But not only that, the Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t “hesitate to manufacture false stories and rumors about injustices and brutality.” These “false stories and rumors” would ultimately “play upon mass emotions until they smolder with resentment and hatred.”
Second, the Civil Rights Movement would “put the emotional masses into the streets in the form of large mobs, the larger the better.” Of course, it doesn’t matter if the “mob” is instructed to be peaceful, because the mob need only come into contact with its “antagonist.” If the “spark” for the conflagration doesn’t exist, Benson said, they would “create it.” Standard race war stuff.
And third, the mob would then proceed to “overthrow established government.” Leadership and training would be provided for “guerrilla warfare.” Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Movement(TM) would resort to “discipline and terrorism to insure at least passive support from the larger, inactive segment of the population.”
Well then. Benson went on and on along these lines for several more paragraphs but you, discerning reader, have already caught the point. The only fulfillment of this particular prophecy occurred on January 6, 2021, planned, instigated, and attempted by Benson’s direct ideological descendants. Q stoked the frenzy. The false specter of a stolen election provided the means, and the fascist right’s guerrilla warriors took the country to the brink.
With this history in the background, let us now return to Dallin Oaks. Oaks was a prominent lawyer and academic before ascending to Mormon leadership. He was Republican enough to land on Ronald Reagan’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees in the 1980s. He is a walking, talking symbol of the dynastic synergy between the Republican Party and the LDS Church since Richard Nixon won Utah in 1968–only one year after Benson’s 1967 jeremiad. But just as only Nixon could go to China, perhaps it could only be Oaks to explain how the LDS Church’s 50 years of prophetically-endorsed political cues could have gone so terribly wrong.
If you thought so, discerning reader, then you thought wrong. Instead, Oaks offered a barely winking, both-sides catalog of bromides concerning the Church’s supposed political neutrality:
Such independent actions will sometimes require voters to support candidates or political parties or platforms whose other positions they cannot approve. That is one reason we encourage our members to refrain from judging one another in political matters. We should never assert that a faithful Latter-day Saint cannot belong to a particular party or vote for a particular candidate. We teach correct principles and leave our members to choose how to prioritize and apply those principles on the issues presented from time to time. We also insist, and we ask our local leaders to insist, that political choices and affiliations not be the subject of teachings or advocacy in any of our Church meetings.
We shouldn’t? Since when? We do? Since when? We insist? Really? Should we insist just a little harder? In 1967, Benson prefaced his screed by claiming that opposition to the Civil Rights Movement was fundamental to satisfying the First Great Commandment to love God. To paraphrase Dana Carvey, “Well, isn’t THAT convenient?” It’s no different than Mike Lee’s egregious comparison of Donald Trump to the Book of Mormon hero named “Captain Moroni,” which only further reminds that the fascist apple falls not far from the Bircher tree.
By now, it should be obvious why Oaks’ dodge is insufficient for the 25% or so of LDS Church members who supported Joe Biden. Political neutrality is one thing. Political “neutrality” after decades of wink-wink-nudge-nudge-say-no-more is a lie. It’s pulling up the drawbridge on members who have long suffered while political extremism masquerades as gospel principle.
Remember, Benson wasn’t just any old Republican: That’s Oaks. No, Benson was a defrocked political extremist with a national captive audience at the exact time his allies were being deplatformed—by their own allies! By the way, Benson’s speech caught the eye of none other than George Wallace, the unrepentantly segregationist third-party candidate, who put Benson on his vice-presidential shortlist.
When I was young and conservative, all of this mattered less—but for different reasons than you might think. Sure, a conservative has less to fear from Bensonite extremism, but I wasn’t a Republican because of Ezra Taft Benson. I was a Republican because of Bill Buckley, and I knew all about the Buckley-led purge of the John Birch Society, anti-Semites, white nationalists and other political undesirables from the conservative movement. I wasn’t a conservative because of Ezra Taft Benson; I was a conservative in spite of him. I thought Benson’s extremism would be an unfortunate relic of the past. I thought we “moved past it.”
But now, what was once extreme is mainstream Republican Party belief. The Birchers and white nationalists are back with a vengeance. And so it matters, and more than it did in 1967, given how far Benson’s Kids have moved the ball in his absence. The danger is no longer even theoretical. And yet, Oaks insists that LDS Democrats remain silent.
And only LDS Democrats. Consider, for example, emeritus Mormon leader Tad Callister’s recent essay in the LDS Church News, an official LDS Church publication. In it, Callister, pining for the “good” old days, insists that a wide panoply of social issues—including racism, gun control, immigration, and climate change—will only be solved by “a return to moral and family values.”
Now, this is standard cut-and-paste rhetoric. When read out of context, Callister doesn’t even explain what his goals are. We can presume he means less racism, but there’s nothing inherently anti-racist about families. The Nazis were as enamored with families as Mormons are.
“Gun control” is a cypher—does he mean people will own fewer guns? Treat them less as a fetish? Whatever the Church’s views on guns, its members are virulently pro-gun to the point that the LDS Church’s wholly-owned-and-operated State Legislature just passed a resolution claiming Utah as an assault weapon sanctuary.
Immigration and climate change? 75% of Mormons voted for the candidate whose only cognizable political belief was placing a wall and an alligator moat between America and the brown people. And why would Mormon families be concerned about climate change when they’re busy living the Prosperity Gospel?2As I write this, my attention is brought to a Mike Pompeo tweet asserting that “Climate Change First is America Last.” But please, tell me more about how nuclear white families will address the climate change problem.
Nevertheless, the meaninglessness of Callister’s statement would at least mean we could leave it be, if only Callister had stopped there. But no, he had to give away the game. It turns out that to understand moral values, we must turn to…former Trump Attorney General William Barr.
Already, this is an LDS Church version of a Saturday Night Live sketch—the Tom Hagen of Don Trump’s criminal presidency opining on moral order. And one would think that alone would bring this exercise to a close—Live from New York, It’s the End of the Right! But still there is more, because Callister’s ratification of Barr’s philosophy gives the lie to any claim of neutrality.
As Callister recites it, Barr argues that government is not “addressing the cause” of social problems but instead acting as an “alleviator of bad consequences.” Barr then gives several examples, all of which are facile.
“The reaction to growing illegitimacy is not sexual responsibility, but abortion.”
This statement contains several lies at once. “Illegitimacy” rates are growing, but only because people choose not to get married. Teen pregnancy and abortion rates are both at or near record lows, at least as of 2017 when Trump took office. The reason is several decades of teaching sexual responsibility—consequences. The only group of people who withhold such teaching is self-proclaimed “Christians.” Meanwhile, as one 2009 study daintily put it, “Increased religiosity in residents of states in the U.S. strongly predicted a higher teen birth rate.”
“The reaction to drug addiction is safe injection sites.”
Yes, one reaction to drug addiction in certain places has been safe injection sites. You may come up with one of roughly 10,000 others. And those who received the intervention of a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence are probably not feeling particularly sheltered from consequence. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of Trump allies substituting Q for opiates has not yet been studied.
“The solution to the breakdown of the family is for the state to set itself up as the ersatz husband for single mothers and the ersatz father for their children.”
This is probably the first, and hopefully last, time I hear America’s welfare system described as a wife-swapping party. Who brings the goldfish bowl…Don Jr. or Eric?
Callister then comes back—could you have doubted it?—and it turns out we had to suffer through all that nonsense just so Callister could do it all over again. Now Satan makes his appearance—and really, kids, who’s for Satan?—passing off abortion as “pro-choice,” legalization of same-sex marriage as “love and compassion,” and, in an unforeseen twist, environmental emergency as “promotion of a zero-growth population agenda.”
Particularly in the last example, Callister openly masquerades his personal political beliefs as gospel-related.3This implicates the loophole I’ve identified elsewhere, which is that anyone can discuss anything in the Church as long as they are aware enough to tie it to some “moral” issue. The exception swallows the rule, but this piece is already long enough. Paul Ehrlich’s zero-population movement had its heyday in the late 1960s—right around the time Ezra Taft Benson was fulminating about phantom government takeovers—but it drives the agenda only in the fever swamps of the right-wing propaganda machine. What actually drives the environmental agenda is about 10 million charred acres in Callister’s—and my—home state of California. And the hurricanes. And the droughts. Etc. Etc.
I have singled Callister out only because he had the misfortune of highlighting the problem at an inopportune time. The point is not that Callister or his politics are uniquely extreme or outrageous—he says nothing about Trump’s election lies or the validity of armed insurrection. No, the point is that he is perfectly at ease with revealing his conservative political biases and couching them in the language of gospel doctrine. Those biases so pervade the LDS Church that no one responsible for the Church News’ publication even stopped to think about them in light of the LDS Church’s supposed political neutrality. And when the root of those biases is toxic political paranoia and extremism—well, that just matters, and it can’t be snapped or wished or ignored away, even if that is always the LDS Church’s preferred mode of (dis)engagement.
And while the LDS Church attempts to veer around the subject, the chickens are home and roosting comfortably. The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported via poll that 45% of LDS Church members believe Trump won the 2020 election—a proxy for fanaticism. This is a lower percentage than the LDS Church’s nearest comparable population, that of white evangelical Christians, which approaches 70-75%.[Mfn]That this is the LDS Church’s nearest comparable religious population is the subject of its own laments, but for another day.[/mfn] But if you assume that few or none of the 25% of LDS members who voted for Biden are Trump fanatics, it means about 65% of Mormon Republicans believe the election was stolen. In other words, the LDS Church can distinguish itself from the ideological bone pits of evangelical Christianity only because of its emerging left wing.
Which brings me, finally (you say), to the only tenable conclusion: Rather than treating its left wing like gays were treated during the Clinton Administration—don’t ask, don’t tell—the LDS Church should cultivate and engage its left wing. Thousands of LDS members, for example, support environmental causes without falling down the musty, boarded-over rabbit hole of “zero population growth” politics. On the other hand, the LDS Church’s right-wing members hurl themselves headlong into ideologies bankrupt, disowned, and abandoned.
In light of this, Oaks’ attempt at a political ceasefire looks less and less like the principled stand of a politically-neutral church, and more like an effort to block reflection—or perhaps investigation—into the LDS Church’s own role in the socio-political collapses of the last half-decade. Call it, if you will, a kind of filibuster, and then consider whom the LDS Church is actually shielding from the natural consequences of their actions.