The Apostle Trump Card

a·pos·tle ·trump ·card – logical fallacy : a logical fallacy referring to attempts to end political discussion by quoting a general authority.

When debating in Mormon circles, many feel that one can’t disagree with a political statement by an apostle. To them, doing so would clearly indicate drifting or even apostasy from the principles of the Church. This kind of thinking is both unproductive and inaccurate because it assumes that there is no political disagreement among the Brethren and that your apostle of choice speaks for the church on political matters. This is simply not true. Nonetheless, the apostle trump card is often played in debates across the Mormon world—especially by conservatives. I will illustrate the problem using the most common example: Ezra Taft Benson.

President Benson was an incredible apostle and prophet—certainly called of God. He did great things for the Church and our country, serving under Eisenhower as Secretary of Agriculture. He had great love for the Constitution and great fear of communism. Benson’s conservatism makes him a popular trump card among conservatives who use him as a means of substantiating their views on entitlements and other issues, assuming that Benson’s political statements establish the will of God on these matters. In their minds, the fact that Benson shares their views closes the door on discussion entirely, stifling responsible thought and discussion about political issues. This tendency can sometimes be perceived as self-righteousness, and it shows a general lack of knowledge about a complex time in Church history—the apostles did disagree on political matters.

In the late 1950s, Benson began a close association with the leaders of the John Birch Society, an anti-communist organization that many considered extremist. Despite Benson’s persistent involvement with the Birchers, President McKay disagreed with many of their viewpoints and never allowed Benson to join this society. There was also much disagreement among the apostles regarding Benson’s views on communism. During the 1960s, Benson delivered anti-communist speeches, including in them statements about the relationship between socialism and communism and the dangers of anything like unto them. These statements concerned many Church members, including the apostles and even the counselors in McKay’s First Presidency: Hugh B. Brown and N. Eldon Tanner, both Democrats. Brown was also concerned about the dangers of communism, but he and others felt that Benson’s controversial remarks and accusations (he had supported Joseph McCarthy) were not the best ways to fight the problem. Public views of the association between the Birchers and the Church, largely due to Benson’s support of their politics, led the First Presidency to issue a statement that read in part, “We deplore the presumption of some politicians, especially officers, co-ordinators [sic] and members of the John Birch Society, who undertake to align the Church or its leadership with their partisan views.”

In 1968, Benson made plans with Senator Strom Thurmond (yes, that Strom Thurmond) to form a third party and run for president. Benson and Thurmond were in opposition to the civil rights movement—Thurmond due to racism, and Benson due to a belief that the movement was a communist conspiracy. This concerned many of the Brethren, and McKay asked that Benson not participate. The relationship among the Brethren regarding Benson’s politics can be best explained by another anecdote: in 1969, Benson gave a controversial speech at BYU, criticizing the government and international officials for being liberal. Shortly after, McKay authorized Brown to give a rebuttal speech.

In general, many Church leaders disagreed with Benson’s politics. In a letter to Senator Ralph Harding, the conservative Joseph Fielding Smith said, “I hope [Benson] will get all of the political notions out of his system.” McKay told Harding, “Several of us have had problems with Brother Benson over the Birch Society.” After McKay’s death, Benson’s political statements ceased. “McKay was succeeded by Joseph Fielding Smith and, subsequently, Harold B. Lee, both of whom had strongly objected to Benson’s political activities during McKay’s presidency,” wrote McKay’s biographers Prince and Wright.

The lesson of this story is that Elder Benson did not represent the views of the Church. Rather, many of the apostles disagreed with him much of the time. In a political discussion, quoting Benson’s views on politics and assuming the debate is over is misleading because there is an allowance for difference of opinion even among the Brethren. Despite statements by Benson, the Church has repeatedly expressed its position that members in good standing can be involved in either of America’s political parties. There is a difference between personal values and political pragmatism. The political views of the Brethren are certainly relevant, but because the Brethren have often disagreed, these political views should not be considered the final word—and they don’t exempt conservatives from needing to develop solid arguments for their views. Most importantly, using the apostle trump card to attack the character of political opponents is damaging and ignorant. Educated members of the church can and should base arguments on reason and facts instead of relying on the apostle trump card.

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11 Responses

  1. Excellent post, Ryan. Very informative.

    Although I worry about some Latter-day Saints making too much about disagreements among general authorities, it is certainly good to know that such disagreements do exist. This knowledge alone can help to buffer uncritical and naive endorsements.

    One other thing that I think is interesting. I could be wrong, but I’ve heard that after Benson became the prophet, the manifestation of his political extremism tempered tremendously. The same can be said of Joseph Fielding Smith and his extreme opposition to evolution (in which he disagreed with B.H. Roberts and James Talmage, among others). Yet, after Smith became the prophet, he said virtually nothing on the subject, at least in public (or so I am told).

    This leads me to another point. We are often quick, in the Church, to assign proto-prophet status. That is, even the statements and quotations that were said before the person was prophet are automatically elevated to prophet status. This is exemplified in our priesthood / RS manuals, in which virtually no distinction is made between pre-prophet and prophet statements. Of course, the manual is documented well, so you can figure it out. But, nonetheless, a lot of Latter-day Saints are slightly deceived in these matters. From my experience, for example, few Latter-day Saints are aware that Joseph Fielding Smith’s Doctrines of Salvation was written before he was prophet, as was Spencer W. Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness. Similarly, few are aware that Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine was written while he was an assistant to the Twelve.

    Had Smith or Kimball never become the prophet, and McConkie never become an apostle, the authority of these books would have diminished considerably. This is a very important point, I think, because I do not think there is any such thing as proto-prophetness. That is, I don’t believe that Kimball or Smith or Benson or any other person who became prophet somehow had more authoritative pre-prophet views than their contemporaries. There certainly may be wisdom to in taking all of the words of the prophets seriously, even those said before they became prophet, but we should be wary of assigning a greater authority to them.

  2. After learning about all this hullaballoo it really gave me an appreciation for how inspired a prophet Ezra Taft Benson was. In spite of a host of political opinions, disagreements, and divisions caused by his politics, even today listening to his speeches as prophet is awe inspiring. The talk on pride is probably the best known example, but he spoke on how we have ignored the Book of Mormon and several other church altering subjects with a power and authority that just floor me, regardless of his politics or fear of civil rights. More than any other prophet in recent memory, he showed me God really can speak through imperfect people.

  3. I wish that we would hear more in Church culture about Hugh B. Brown’s political views. That he and Benson were contemporaries, colleauges, and bretheren speaks loudly to the pluralism that is possible in the Church–including the apostleship.

  4. Dennis –

    All good points. I tried hard in the article to show that the disagreements were only political. Benson was very close with all of the Twelve and FP, and they were united on many things. Your discussion of proto-prophetness is fantastic. Also, you are right to say that Benson did not bring out his political opinions as President. I think he showed great dignity in focusing on doctrine and counsel.

    Brady –

    I am a big fan of Hugh B. Brown. He was a man of incredible intelligence and integrity. His is a fascinating story. If you are really interested, there is some great material in the Prince and Wright bio of David O. McKay (an incredible book), David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Brown’s memoirs have also been published – An Abundant Life – which give fascinating insight into both his political views and how decisions were made by the Brethren in those days (and likely still today). He was also very involved in the debate about the Priesthood ban, something I won’t get into here.

  5. Thanks Ryan. I’m a big fan of the McKay bio, but I haven’t read President Brown’s memoirs. I’ll have to check it out.

  6. Fantastic post, Ryan – well written. I especially liked the opening paragraph. What a creative idea!

    Dennis makes a good point about proto-prophetic statements. Those books wouldn’t carry the significance were these individuals never called as President of the Church. We sustain all apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators. They, too, are capable of revealing truth. Its why we pay such great attention to their General Conference messages — because we believe their talks are authoritative.

    Its simply too convenient to attach additional authority, as Dennis pointed out, to proto-prophetic statements with which we happen to agree. At the same time, however, I find there are many that disregard apostolic statements they disagree with under the reasoning that they were said before that individual was President of the Church. This fails to take into account that Presidents of the Church can mis-speak, too. More significantly, such a understanding of revelation misses the entire essence of religion: the relationship between God and the individual as mediated by Christ. Statements should be evaluated by their own merits, the cannon, and, most importantly, through prayer and mediation, rather than whether who said it — President of the Church or an apostle.

    I’m constantly flabbergasted that so many people claim there is a particularly political ideology that embodies are religious beliefs when (a) there are so many political models the Lord finds acceptable throughout the entire cannon, and (b), the first presidency releases a statement explicating that all major political parties embody principles of the gospel.

  7. Very informative and well written piece, Ryan.

  8. This is by far the most interesting piece on this blog for weeks. Why has it solicited a mere 7 comments (8 including this one)?

  9. Anselmo,

    I often find that the best posts on this blog (including this one) often yield relatively few comments.

    I have no idea why.

  10. Perhaps because you covered the topic so well, it sort of leaves us speechless. I enjoyed this posting immensely and yet I can’t think of a single thing to say. Very unusual for me. :)

    I posted the link to this posting in the latest discussion on my blog. Sort of fits into what we were discussing and I wanted to share.

  11. “Those books wouldn’t carry the significance were these individuals never called as President of the Church.”

    The same thing applies to children of the GA. In 1962 (may have been 1963) I was a member of the Washington DC ward and heard Reed Benson, son of Elder Benson, speak in Sacrament Meeting on the virtues of the JB Society. I felt his appearance and topic was inappropriate for SM, and I wondered if he were there as a surrogate for his father. He was, at the time, an official rep of the JB society.

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