This is an entry in the ongoing General Conference Odyssey project. My previous contributions can be found here. Posts by other bloggers writing about the April 1972 General Conference today are linked at the end of this post. You can also visit the project group on Facebook.
Today we are writing about the Thursday Afternoon Session of the April 1972 Conference.
Over the years, President Ezra Taft Benson’s political views have been a topic of some controversy, and I believe that many people have developed a distorted, dismissive idea of President Benson that creates an incomplete, oversimplified concept of a more complex man. Our culture has become addicted to out-of-context soundbites and easily consumable memes, and so it is easy to see only quotes from President Benson that reinforce our stereotype. When that happens, there is even a danger of imposing our expectations upon anything he says, so that we see what we expect to see when we read anything from him.
As the United States in 2016 works its way through yet another brutal presidential election year, it is interesting to look back more than four decades and read the political thoughts of apostle Ezra Taft Benson, given in the April 1972 General Conference. There are a number of things that he addressed that could seem outdated and foreign today, and yet there are many ideas and concepts that he taught that seem more relevant now than ever before.
President Benson would have been 18 years old when Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized control of the Russian government in October of 1917. Their Communist Revolution would culminate in the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922. During his lifetime he had watched the devastation of the rise and eventual defeat of the National Socialists in Germany and the National Fascists in Italy. During his lifetime he watched as communism spread throughout the world and the USSR became the chief political and philosophical rival of the United States. Communist control of the USSR collapsed in 1991, and President Benson passed away in 1994. In other words the rise and fall of communism happened entirely during his adult lifetime.
In April 1972, Elder Benson gave an excellent discourse titled “Civic Standards for the Faithful Saints.” While a large portion of the discourse was not about conspiracies, it is inevitable that some people will be dismissive of his words because of his talk of atheist conspiracies and secret combinations. So I want to briefly address that topic first.
Elder Benson said:
“Now undoubtedly Moroni could have pointed out many factors that led to the destruction of the people, but notice how he singled out the secret combinations, just as the Church today could point out many threats to peace, prosperity, and the spread of God’s work, but it has singled out the greatest threat as the godless conspiracy. There is no conspiracy theory in the Book of Mormon —it is a conspiracy fact.
This scripture should alert us to what is ahead unless we repent, because there is no question but that as people of the free world, we are increasingly upholding many of the evils of the adversary today. By court edict godless conspirators can run for government office, teach in our schools, hold office in labor unions, work in our defense plants, serve in our merchant marines, etc. As a nation, we are helping to underwrite many evil revolutionaries in our country.”
This kind of language is likely very grating and distasteful to our modern ears. Talk of conspiracies and paranoia about atheists in society is definitely looked down upon today, and it is easy to retroactively judge Elder Benson by modern standards. But our modern attitudes are also shaped by our distance from the reality of communism. Communism was an explicitly atheist political philosophy that used government power to actively suppress religious belief, outlaw religious organizations, and persecute religious believers.
So when Elder Benson speaks about “godless conspirators” infiltrating society, he is speaking as a man who has seen real governments overthrown by revolutionaries with the explicit intent of squashing religion and imposing atheism. Conspiracies were not just theory to him; they were facts. And many of the educated, intellectual elites of the United States had been supportive of these communist governments even as they brutally suppressed freedom of speech and religion– essential rights for the spread of the Restored Gospel.
Sure, we can take conspiracy thinking too far, and people get stuck in mental loops about secret societies and clandestine operations. But we should read Elder Benson’s with greater context and circumspection.
It is also interesting to look back then at how Elder Benson opens his talk, relating how he had been invited to visit Iran in the previous year:
“Last fall I was invited by Baron von Blomberg, president of the United Religions Organization, to represent the Church as a guest of the king of Persia at the twenty-five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great. Advised by the First Presidency to accept the invitation, I left immediately following the October conference to join with representatives of twenty-seven world religions, some fifty monarchs, and other notables at this historic celebration in Iran.”
Seven years later, in 1979, there would be a revolution in Iran, overthrowing the Shah and establishing an Islamic theocratic constitution. And the church ceased any official operation in the country at that time. I doubt that Elder Benson considered the theocratic revolution in Iran any less terrible than the atheistic communist revolutions . He was concerned about men conspiring to take away freedom that permitted the gospel to be taught and that allowed men and women to unite themselves to the church of their own free will and follow its precepts. His focus on “godless conspirators” was most likely because communism had been so successful in his lifetime, and was a more real threat world-wide, and not because he felt differently about conspiracies to establish theocracy.
In his talk, he uses his trip to Iran as a starting point to discuss good people of the world who do not join the church but who use their influence to do good, and whom the Lord uses to accomplish his purposes, by comparing them to the biblical account of King Cyrus of Persia, who facilitated the return of the Jewish people to Israel and the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity.
He quotes apostle Elder Orson F. Whitney who said:
“Perhaps the Lord needs such men on the outside of His Church to help it along. They are among its auxiliaries, and can do more good for the cause where the Lord has placed them, than anywhere else. … Hence, some are drawn into the fold and receive a testimony of the truth; while others remain unconverted … the beauties and glories of the gospel being veiled temporarily from their view, for a wise purpose. The Lord will open their eyes in His own due time. God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people. … We have no quarrel with the Gentiles. They are our partners in a certain sense.”
Elder Benson adds: “We honor these partners because their devotion to correct principles overshadowed their devotion to popularity, party, or personalities.”
Related to the sentiment, Elder Benson also relays some principles that it would be good to keep in mind during this presidential election year. Quoting J. Reuben Clark saying :
“God provided that in this land of liberty, our political allegiance shall run not to individuals, that is, to government officials, no matter how great or how small they may be. Under His plan our allegiance and the only allegiance we owe as citizens or denizens of the United States, runs to our inspired Constitution which God himself set up. So runs the oath of office of those who participate in government. A certain loyalty we do owe to the office which a man holds, but even here we owe just by reason of our citizenship, no loyalty to the man himself. In other countries it is to the individual that allegiance runs. This principle of allegiance to the Constitution is basic to our freedom. It is one of the great principles that distinguishes this ‘land of liberty’ from other countries.”
He also quotes former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt:
“Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the President or any other public official save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. … Every man who parrots the cry of ‘stand by the President’ without adding the proviso ‘so far as he serves the Republic’ takes an attitude as essentially unmanly as that of any Stuart royalist who championed the doctrine that the King could do no wrong. No self-respecting and intelligent free man could take such an attitude.”
Elder Benson encouraged us to “pray for our civic leaders and encourage them in righteousness.“
I have focused on specific parts of Elder Benson’s 1972 discourse, but his primary message was about four “civic standards” that latter-day saints should consult in their civic and political efforts. I encourage you to take some time to read the whole talk.
Other bloggers writing about the Thursday Afternoon Session of the April 1972 General Conference:
- The Family, The Family, The Family by Nathaniel G.
- Personal Dispensation by G.
- Fitly Joined Together by Daniel O.
- Skip My Commentary and Read President Benson’s Talk by John H.
- The Restoration and Western Humanity – Triumph or Crisis? by Ralph H.
- “This We Can Do!” by Walker W.
- Not Belief: I Know It by SilverRain
- Oh, To Be Excommunicated! by Jan T.