The LDS Church and Politics
I have no prepared talk this morning. He assured me that that would not be necessary – that I was just to come here and greet you, look into your faces and get the inspiration which always comes from this experience, and also get away from the pressure which he knows I have been under in the last few days. So it is truly a relief to come here. There are one or two little items I’d like to fill in if I may. I say I haven’t prepared any talk; as a matter of fact, I haven’t worried about this appearance. Possibly I should have done.
I was out at a stake conference some months ago, and I had with me a very fine welfare worker, one of the choice men of this Church. But he was very timid; it was very hard for him to speak in conference. He went to the morning session expecting to be called upon, and he was not called because there were so many returned missionaries. And as we came to the stake president’s home for lunch, our visitor didn’t have much of an appetite. It’s always easier to speak when you’re not overly loaded with food, and so as they passed the food around he passed the potatoes by; he took just one carrot, practically no meat, and nibbled a little at his salad. In fact, he refused some lemon pie that was offered for dessert – and that takes real resistance. We went to meeting. After the meeting was over – the mother of that home had a young babe and had to miss the meeting – the son about fifteen years of age returned from the meeting, and the mother who had worried about this good welfare worker said, “Well, how did Brother So and So do?” And the son said, “Aw mom, he just as well a et.”
I have one story I want to tell you. Brother Wilkinson is a very distinguished attorney. I mean that. I wish he were free today: probably if I didn’t love this Institution so much, I’d almost insist that he be released to accompany me back to the nation’s capital. He’s the kind of man that I’d like to have as solicitor in the Department of Agriculture – one of the great departments of the Government, 78,000 employees. In the presence of Brother Stephen L. Richards the other day, I heard this story. A very fine gentleman, a Christian man, was on his death bed. Knowing that his hours Were few, he called in his attorney. He also called in his doctor. And these two distinguished men, seated on either side of his bed, visited with him briefly, and he didn’t give them anything of any great importance to consider, and finally the attorney said, “Why have you invited us here?” And this man said, “For one purpose. I’ve always been a great admirer of the Great Teacher, the founder of Christianity; I’ve always tried to pattern my life after his, and I thought, as I near the end I’d like to die between two thieves.” Well, Brother Wilkinson will forgive me for telling that story, but I heard it when we were back in Washington a few days ago.
Now, my brothers and sisters, it’s a great honor to be here this morning. I feel very humble as I look into your faces and particularly as I contemplate the assignment which has come to me so unexpectedly. I want you to know how deeply grateful I am for all the influences which have touched my life and have helped to shape my character. I’m grateful for my noble birthright, for my parentage, for the great pioneer stock from which most of us have come. I’m grateful for the opportunity of attending this institution. I’m grateful for the spirit which is here, the spirit of the Gospel. I’m grateful for the men on the faculty who have touched my life with their influence – I shall ever be indebted to them.
But more than to anyone else, this morning, I’m grateful to the girl who has been at my side now for twenty-six years. Brother Wilkinson didn’t tell you very much of the part she’s played. She has always been an inspiration to me and to our children, and if they ever accomplish anything in life, and we expect them to, she’ll be entitled to at least two-thirds of the credit. She’s carried more than half the load all the way through. She married a man who was heavily in debt. She knows what it is to live on $70 a month and maintain a home. Coming from a family of some means, she turned her back on all of that and was willing to sacrifice, to become a farmer’s wife, to go out on the experiment farm at Iowa State College, and glean squash from the field and pick nuts in order to cut down on the food bill. She’ s been true all the way, and I pay tribute to her today. No man could ever have had, or now has, a truer companion. You know, it’s so common for us men to be in the limelight. We receive the plaudits of men, we’re honored, we’re recommended; but very often the other part of the team is hardly referred to. I’ve thought of that a great deal the past week.
Now I presume, my brothers and sisters, that you’ll be disappointed – well I
know that you’re going to be disappointed anyway, but you’ll be even more disappointed if I don’t tell you something of the rather intimate situation in connection with this call. And if I can, in just a few words, I’d like to do it for you because I feel so close to this institution. And I hope you’ll understand that it isn’ t done in any spirit of boasting, but in the hope it may be helpful. Since the call has come I have felt more like praying than anything else. Of course, I’ve done a great deal of it, and I hope I’ll have your faith and prayers because this honor is not an honor to an individual member of the Church. It’s not an honor alone to the Council of the Twelve – the leadership of the Church. I look upon it as an honor and a tribute to the Church as a whole. It is an evidence that, at last, people have come to recognize us for what we are – to recognize our standards, our ideals, our philosophy, the principles for which we stand. And so you share in this honor, and you also share in the responsibility, and to that end I seek your faith and prayers in the days ahead.
Now it has come as a great surprise. It is true that four years ago I was approached regarding a cabinet post by one of the candidates who expected to be elected – expected it with sure confidence, at least a confidence that I have never witnessed in an election – but frankly this time the matter had never entered my mind. In a telephone call from Senator Watkins on Thursday night, the 20th of November, he asked if I knew that there was developing a great “ground-swell” as he called it, of support for me as Secretary. This was my first intimation that I was being considered. I said no, I knew nothing about it. And I was truthful. I had been in Washington only a few days before. It had not been mentioned. I was there on business with Brother Stephen L. Richards. We’d had Interviews with representatives of the Indian Service, the Department of State, General Hershey of Selective Service. We participated in the dedication of the Chevy-Chase building. I had called at some of the offices of national farm organizations. But nothing was said about it. Brother Watkins wanted to know what the attitude of the Church would be. I replied, “There’s only one man who can answer that, and that’s the President of the Church. I don’t know what his attitude would be. My life is devoted to this work, but I’d be glad to try and do anything the President of the Church asks me to do.”
The next morning as I parked my car on the parking lot at the Church Office building, I met Brother McKay as he was parking his car. We have a habit of going down rather early in the morning. Very seldom do I get there before he does. And he said, “I received a very important telephone call last night. ” And he said, “Brother Benson, my mind is clear on the matter and if the opportunity comes, I think that you should accept. I said, “Brother McKay, I can’t believe that it will come,” and gave my reasons. The next day Brother Mark Peterson and I started for Provo to attend to some business incident to the division of the Sharon Stake. On arrival in Provo the call from Eisenhower Headquarters, that my wife had predicted earlier, came and reached me in this city. And when I learned of it the first place I thought of was the campus of the B. Y. U. where I could get by myself in some little office and quietly consider the matter. I talked to the President of the Church before I even accepted the telephone call, because they said that General Eisenhower’s office was calling. The call was simply a request to come to New York City for an interview, and frankly, even then, I thought that probably they were considering several men and they wanted a chance to look at some of them with whom they were not acquainted. I took the plane that night and went to New York City for the interview.
I can say to you frankly, my brothers and sisters, I didn’t ‘want to be Secretary of Agriculture. I can’t imagine anyone in his right mind wanting it. Because I know something of what it entails; I know something of the crossfires, the pressures, the problems, the difficulties. Because as Brother Wilkinson has been good enough to indicate, I was rather close to the Department of Agriculture, although not a part of it, while living for five and a half years in Washington. I’ve always feared, in a way, getting into politics. I’ve never had any particular desire in that direction. I’ve always had a deep interest in seeing men elected to office who represented the ideals and standards which have meant so much to me in my life, and I would always rather support someone else than to actually hold political office. It was with that feeling in mind that I went in to meet, for the first time, General Eisenhower. I’m sure that he would not object if I told you very briefly what transpired. His brother, Milton Eisenhower, whom I had met, was there. He at one time was in the Department of Agriculture; he at one time was president of Kansas State College, and now is president of Pennsylvania State College, both of them land-grant colleges .We were together for about thirty minutes, and at the outset it was made very clear that the decision had been made. There was no one else under consideration.
Then I gave three or four very good reasons, I thought, why I should not be a member of the Cabinet. In the first place I indicated ,that I had been a supporter of Senator Taft. Although not an active supporter, I had lent my name to a Citizens for Taft Committee. I thought Senator Taft was well qualified. I’d know him in Washington, admired his integrity, and his capacity. And I said to the General, “It isn’t because I haven’t admired you, but I haven ‘t known you; I’ve never seen you until today. And I’ve always thought it would be a little better, other things being equal, not to have a military man in the White House. Now I want you to know that.”
He said, “That’s perfectly all right.”
I said for my next reason, “I come from a state that is usually considered rather unimportant agriculturally. Even my native state of Idaho is not one of the leading agricultural states. It’s been the custom to select the Secretary of Agriculture from the great farm belt of the Middle West. What’s going to be the reaction if you select a man from Utah to be your Secretary of Agriculture when we’ve only got about three percent of our land under cultivation? I know there are several good men in the Middle West who would like to be secretary. And at least three of them I could wholeheartedly support; they’d make good secretaries, and they’ve been working hard for you and surely you owe them something.” And fourthly I said, “I wonder about the wisdom of calling a clergyman, a minister of the Gospel, to be a Secretary of Agriculture. What will be the reaction from other religious groups, from people generally?”
And he said, “Suppose we consider the last question first. ” Then he added, “Surely you believe that the job to be done is spiritual. Surely you know that we have the great responsibility to restore confidence in the minds of our people in their own government – that we’ve got to deal with spiritual matters.” Then he went on and answered the rest of the objections. When he came to the end he said, “We’ve got a great job to do. I didn’t want to be President, frankly, when the pressure started.” But he said, “You can’t refuse to serve America! We’ve got a great job to do and I want you on my team.”
Well, my brothers and sisters, no true American could refuse such a request from the President elect, even though I told him I had already received, what in my eyes was a greater honor than he could bestow. So of course, I accepted. Now I know that many of you who are here today have supported the Governor of Illinois. I know many of you have supported Senator Taft and others, and that’s perfectly all right; that’s our great American privilege. I hope and pray that we always have freedom of choice, one of the great eternal principles that the God of Heaven intends his children to enjoy. But now, the American people have spoken, and General Eisenhower is to be inaugurated, January 20th, and on that date he becomes our President. And regardless of our political affiliation, regardless of where our sympathies have been, it becomes, in my humble judgement, our obligation, our duty as American citizens, as Latter-day Saints, to give him our faith and prayers because he’ll need them. And so I ask for that support for him, for all the members of the Cabinet, for all of those whom you have elected, representing the people of the United States to serve in positions of leadership in this great nation. With that support, with your faith and with your prayers, we cannot fail – without that support, we cannot succeed. I know that as I know that I live.
I love this great country. I always get a thrill when I go to the nation’s capital. I know, many people say that’s one place they wouldn’t live. I love Washington, D.C. This may sound almost like treason, but I had no desire to move back West to live, I was so happy there with the work I was doing. I don’t know that I’ll be so happy again there in this position, But I love all that is associated with Washington – the ideals of our Government, the great men who have represented us there, the great statesmen. I get a thrill every time I go into the Nation’s Capital, and on Friday night when I was there just before the ChevyChase Building was, dedicated, I did something I have wanted to do for years. I went into the Capitol and I stood there in the great Statuary Hall, and I noticed to my great joy, over in one corner, under a lovely light, a statue of the great pioneer Mormon leader, the Prophet of God, Brigham Young. And I recalled that, a few years before while living in Washington I had gone there frequently and sometimes stood there meditating, wondering if the time would ever come when the people of this country would permit Utah to be represented in one of her favorite sons. I remember one time while standing there, that one of the Senators came through – as I remember now it was Senator Ashhurst from Arizona – and he greeted me, and I said to him, “Senator, why is it that Utah is not represented here in the Hall of Fame?”
He said, “Mr. Benson, surely you know why.”
I said, “I think I do, but I’d like to hear it from your lips. You’ve been a friend of our people.”
And then he told me that even during his service in the Senate, an effort had been made at one time to get approval from a certain committee for President Brigham Young to represent Utah. At that time the prejudice was still in existence, and the committee apparently refused to approve it. But as I stood there on the 20th of this last month, I thrilled as I saw President Brigham Young’s likeness there taking his place in the circle among the great. And then I did something – as I mentioned – that I wanted to do. I walked from the Capitol Building, down straight through the mall, on the grass, down to the Washington Monument, and from there down to the Lincoln Memorial. ‘It is one mile and a quarter from Capitol Building to the Washington Monument, three-quarters of a mile from there on. As I walked, I reviewed in my own mind the history of this, the greatest nation under heaven. And I hope, my young brethren and sisters, that you do not this Institution without taking a good course in American History. I mean that sincerely. I think one of the weaknesses in our educational system today in many parts is the fact that students leave the institutions where they get their education knowing but very little about our American Background, the fundamental, basic concepts of our American way of life.
You may recall, those of you who have been in Washington, that between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial there’s what is called a “reflecting pool”. And I stood there on the side of it and could look in one direction and see the Lincoln Memorial reflected in the water. This time the sun had gone down and the lights were on. Looking in the other direction the Washington Monument was visible. Then by stepping over to one corner, I could see all three reflected in the pool – the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building. Then I went up into the Lincoln Memorial and I read those inscriptions on the wall. I presume that never in my life has there come to my heart such a feeling of gratitude and thanksgiving for my citizenship in this land, choice above all others. It’s a great blessing to live in America. It’s a great blessing to have the opportunity to enjoy the freedoms which are ours today. I have seen people, thousands of them, who have lost the freedom which is ours, where they can no longer meet, as we meet here this morning, and express themselves as they see fit, where they no longer have freedom of movement, freedom to select their own jobs, their own educational opportunities, freedom to speak their minds, to write what they wish – freedom of enterprise. In many parts of the world today these rich blessings of freedom no longer exist.
I don’t know how you feel, my brethren and Sisters, but I’d rather be dead than lose my liberty. I have no fear we’ll ever lose it because of invasion from the outside, but I do have fear that it may slip away from us because of our own indifference, our own negligence as citizens of this land. And so I plead with you this morning, that you take an active interest in matters pertaining to the future of this country. And if the time should come when you are associated with groups that take delight in tearing down our American way of life, then they seem to enjoy pointing out the weaknesses of our free enterprise system – and it has weaknesses; it has weaknesses because it’s operated by men and women who are full of weaknesses – but when those times come, when our system is criticized, just keep in mind the fruits of the system, the great blessings that have come to us because of our American way of life. No group of people have ever attained the standard of living which is ours. And so let’s become acquainted with what has been accomplished. It’s all right to criticize; it’s all right to try and improve our American way of life; but in doing so, 1et’s not surrender, let’s not give up, let’s not jeopardize that system which has made America great.
Just one further thought, and then I won’t tire you longer. I have great hope for the youth of Zion. I believe firmly, my brethren and Sisters, that there’s no group of young people in the whole world who have the opportunities which are yours. I believe firmly that in the days ahead this nation is going to demand and need the leadership of men and women who have’ been trained in the home, in the church, in the school as you have been trained, who have your ideals, who are guided by the principles which guide your lives. You are going to be needed in positions of leadership. And I am confident that, while the world may not live our standards, in the days ahead they are going to look for men and women to fill positions of trust, who have the courage, the faith and the good common sense to live according to the teachings and standards of this great Church, the only true Church upon the face of the whole earth – God’s Kingdom restored again to bless mankind.
And I hope and pray, my brethren and sisters, that as those calls come we will be true to the great trust that God has placed in us, and we can only be true to that trust if we are true to the principles and standards for which this Church stands – because those standards and those ideals are part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are true. They are the way of life which the God of Heaven has prescribed for his children, and their foundation is spirituality, faith in God, faith in all that’s pure, good, holy and uplifting. God help us to prepare ourselves for the assignments ahead and to measure up in every particular, guided always by the eternal principles upon which the Church and Kingdom of God have been established, and upon which this nation has been founded, and this great educational institution.
As I close I think of the words of the Apostle Paul, as he stood before King Agrippa making his defense – Paul, a persecutor of the Saints, converted to Christianity through a glorious manifestation. And there as he stood before King Agrippa in chains, the king permitted him to make his own defense. And I remember that as he made his defense, outlining the mission of Christ, referring to this thing called Christianity, he said in substance, to the king, “Surely, King, you must have heard of this new movement, for,” he said, “this thing has not been done in a corner.” How well that applies to Mormonism today. Yes, persecutions have come in the past. Our people have endured much. I think of the Prophet in Liberty Jail. I think of the brethren who were shot down by mobs. I think of the missionaries and the persecutions that met them.
I think of that great struggle referred to by Brother Wilkinson when Senator Smoot was trying to take his seat in the Senate. The hearings went on for weeks. I went through those hearings a year ago, four great volumes with one thousand pages each of testimony. It was easy to see before I had read very far that it was not Reed Smoot who was on trial; it was the Church and people whom he represented. Our Standard Works, private papers of the First Presidency, confidential items were placed in the records. Finally the President of the Church was placed on the witness stand, not for hours but for days. And I wonder if the Lord didn’t have a hand in it. I sometimes think, too, that one of the reasons why he permitted, yea, directed some of the early leaders of the Church to enter into the sacred relationship of plural marriage was for the purpose of publicizing his people. Men’s ways are not God’s ways. Maybe it’s his way of getting Mormonism before the world.
No, “this thing has not been done in a corner”. The hand of God has been directing His Church and His people. And so it will be in the future. While honors may come to us conferred by men, and those honors are important, of course they are. No honor will ever come to a member of this Church in the political world that will equal or even approach the honor which comes to a man when he is ordained to a high office in the Church and Kingdom of God – when he has conferred upon him the holy priesthood, that which is eternal, that which is most priceless. God help us, my brothers and sisters, to cherish the priceless blessings which are ours through membership in the Church, that our testimonies may continue strong, that we may love the priesthood, love the Church and all that it stands for. And may we at the same time be true Americans, true to our way of life, true to the eternal principles upon which this nation has been established, I humbly pray, thanking you, and thanking my Heavenly Father for this privilege of looking into your faces this morning. I pray God’s blessings to attend you always in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
(Source: "The LDS Church and Politics", Ezra Taft Benson, BYU Devotional, December 1, 1952)