Religious Extremism and Conspiracy: A Student’s Observation

March 20, 2021

by Madison S. Harris1

Over the years my devout Mormon grandparents have given my family and me a year’s supply of MREs, dried foods, and several 72-hour emergency kits, all of which sits in our basement today collecting dust. We are lapsed Mormons and haven’t attended church in years, but my grandparents love us enough so that when the apocalypse comes, we’ll be ready. Strangely enough, I never really thought about the weirdness of all of this until I read Tara Westover’s Educated.2 Westover’s riveting memoir details her journey growing up in rural Idaho, where she was indoctrinated into End Times Mormon theology living in constant fear that she wasn’t ready for Jesus’s return. In engaging prose, full of spirited stories and tragic abuse, Westover provides a gripping account of her an ultraconservative Mormon upbringing, where she lived without a birth certificate until she was nine, never set foot in a public school until she was seventeen, and never had modern medicine until she was an adult. Just as riveting, her parents stockpiled food, weapons, and ammunition in preparation for Jesus’s imminent return.

Admittedly, my grandparents are not radical like this, nor are most Mormons. But the fact that Westover’s parents embraced such radical views bespeaks a shadowy version of Mormonism that most of the church elders in Salt Lake would rather forget. Westover says that her story “is not about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief,”3 but after I finished the book, I knew there was more to the story than Westover let on. I grew up in the LDS Church. I was baptized and can still recall Sunday School teachings about the Second Coming of Christ that Mormon zealots predict will happen in my lifetime. But after reading Educated, the faith of my youth and that of my grandparents has piqued my interest. Why did Westover’s parents develop such a radical conception of the End Times? Why did they embrace conspiracies and, just as important, which Mormon leader taught it to them? Are Westover’s family outliers in Mormonism? I guess what I really want to know is: Why do I have so much emergency food in my basement?

“The Lord has decreed global calamites for the future and has warned and forewarned us to be prepared.”4 -Ezra Taft Benson, 1980

Ezra Taft Benson is at the epicenter of modern Mormon conspiracy theories. He wasn’t an ordinary Mormon. He served in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s cabinet as the secretary of agriculture (1953-1961), while also serving as an apostle in the church. Later he served as the church president. He had clout; he had stature. Mormons listened.

They still listen.

In order to illuminate Benson’s conspiracy theories, it helps to frame what a conspiracy is. According to political scientist Michael Barkun, author of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, “Conspiracism is, first and foremost, an explanation of politics. It purports to locate and identify the true loci of power and thereby illuminate previously hidden decision making. The conspirators, often referred to as a shadow or hidden government, operate a concealed political system being the visible one, whose functionaries are either ciphers or puppets.”5 Benson fits Barkun’s definition to a T.

Benson was an ardent conspirator, having taught that government programs were precursors to communism, the Democratic Party was communist-led, and that communists were embedded in the U.S. government foisting their communist programs on naïve and unsuspecting Americans.6 Benson taught that the United Nations was a communist organization because of the way it amassed power from sovereign nations. At the same time, he alleged that the U.S. government fluoridated the water to control its citizens, and he called the Civil Rights movement and Democratic party Kremlin-backed communist programs. Most of all, he accused American presidents of having communist sympathies, as well as influential leaders, politicians, and jurists. Thus, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and even Richard Nixon leaned red, as well as Chief Justice Earl Warren, musicians Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and Rachel Carson, the outspoken women who launched the environmental movement.7

Senator Joseph McCarthy, the infamous propagator of the Red Scare, influenced Benson. But his conspiracy theories derived mostly from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, whom he regarded highly, and the John Birch Society (JBS), the most extreme anticommunist organization in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.8 Following Benson’s government service in 1961, he met the former candy executive and conspiracist extraordinaire Robert Welch—president and founder of the John Birch Society. The two became close friends and developed a shared worldview over the problems that they believed had plagued American society: hippie culture, rock-and-roll music, the Vietnam War, liberal government programs, rise of feminism, and most especially the U.N. and the Civil Rights movement. Benson’s staunch conservative views led him to eschew vigorous governmental involvement and to criticize others who embraced government assistance. For Benson, the government had no right to meddle in people’s lives and thus he denounced government programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare as communist-inspired.9 Benson viewed these programs as governmental overreach—programs that served Satan while diminishing faith in capitalism and free will.

The John Birch Society intensified Benson’s conspiracy theories.10 His friendship with Robert Welch, and his zealous reading of Birch literature, convinced him that there was a conspiracy within the federal government to consolidate state and local authority.11 The Birch Society’s boldest claim, however, was in asserting that Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, a five-star general, was a tool of the communists. His failure to roll-back the liberal New Deal programs made them angry and, incidentally, led Benson to view his former boss as a “tool” of the communist conspiracy. This was the organization that Benson affiliated with and encouraged other Mormons to join. Though Benson did not always have a direct role in JBS matters, his family did. His son Reed Benson served as a Birch Society spokesman and his wife and other children were all members. For the Bensons, conspiracy was a way of life—a family affair.12

Benson’s fear of communism is what inspired his conspiracy theories. He wrote “I have personally witnessed the heart-rending results of the loss of freedom. I have seen it with my own eyes. I have been close to the godless evil of the socialist-communist conspiracy on both sides of the iron curtain, particularity during my years as European Mission President for my Church at the close of the war and today and also during my eight years in the Cabinet.”13 Benson’s trip to Europe at the close of World War II intensified his radical thinking. During his tenure as the secretary of agriculture, he became even more concerned that communism had harmed the United States, a worry that, as scholar Jan Shipps has explained, “made him even less willing to support the sort of government assistance that farmers had relied on during the New Deal and World War II.”14

Benson wanted to withdraw all forms of government support and spelled out his plans on how to do it in a controversial address called “The Proper Sphere of Government.” He wrote that “the first step toward restoring the limited concept of government should be to freeze all welfare-state programs at their present level, making sure that no new ones are added. The next step would be to allow all present programs to run out their term with absolutely no renewal. The third step would involve the gradual phasing-out of those programs which are indefinite in their term.”15 This unpopular stance, fueled by his desire to eliminate big government throughout his tenure as secretary of agriculture, hinged on his communist conspiracy theories. In fact, Benson alleged that communist cells had infiltrated the federal government as early as the 1930s.16

But what is most fascinating is how Benson’s fear of communism morphed into his devoted support of the Constitution.17 He believed that God had called him to save the U.S. Constitution from godless forces as part of his ultra-patriotic duty to maintain American exceptionalism—a teaching that many Mormons still embrace today. Ninety-four percent of Mormons believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired, evidence of Benson’s lasting influence. His devotion to the Constitution evolved into an ardent defense of laissez-faire capitalism and ultra-conservatism manifest most intently when he demonized those with contrasting views.18

In addition to asserting a connection between the United Nations and communist conspirators, Benson also proclaimed a link between the Democratic Party and communism. He claimed that by studying “the liberal voting record…this would show you how much the liberals are giving aid and comfort to the enemy and how much the liberals are actually leading America towards socialism itself. For communism is just another form of socialism, as is fascism.”19 Most telling, Benson called the Democratic National Committee a foreign enemy, equating them, in breathtaking fashion, with the Nazi regimes of Eastern Europe.20 He continued promoting these baseless assertions when he linked the Civil Rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with communism—a view that led stubborn Utahns to reject the federal King holiday when it came up for vote in the 1980s.21 In fact, Benson called the Civil Rights movement a communist front. He explained that “as far back as 1928, the communist declared that cultural, economic, and social differences between the races in America could be exploited by them [communists] to create the animosity, fear, and hatred between large segments of people.” Benson further asserted that “this would be the necessary beginning ingredients for their [communist] revolution.”22 Benson’s message was clear: The Civil Rights movement existed to “create hatred, trigger violence, and then overthrow the federal government.”23

Benson passed these ideas onto Latter-day Saints. He spoke about them often in conferences and worship services and wrote about them in numerous articles and books. In 1985, more than two decades after he served as the secretary of agriculture, Benson became the thirteenth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though modern LDS church presidents and the church’s governing hierarchy have remained fairly neutral about political matters, Benson was not afraid to stray from the norm.24 Because of Benson’s lasting influence promoting conservatism and conspiracy, Mormons have been faithful Republican voters ever since the early 1970s. Even today, in 2021, Utah is one of the reddest states, having voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections at disproportionate rates compared to other red states.25 Though he died in 1994, his teachings and affiliations with the ultraconservative Birch Society linger in the minds of modern Mormons, much to the dismay of current church leadership, which has tried to move the church to the center right politically. 26

Perhaps not surprisingly, Benson’s precepts and teachings have inspired a number of fringe Mormons, from doomsday prepper Julie Rowe to the Bundy brothers who led a month-long standoff with federal authorities in Oregon in 2014 to Gene Westover, father of Tara Westover, author of Educated.27 Gene Westover wholly embraced Benson’s conspiracy theories and cautioned his family that they needed to be prepared for the End Times. To that end, Westover stockpiled weapons, canned extraordinary amounts of food and amassed other emergency supplies at their compound in rural Idaho. In addition, he freely shared his conspiracy theories with his family.28 He claimed, for example, that BYU faculty were secret members of the Illuminati who taught socialism to their students. But most shocking, he asserted that Jewish bankers started World War II by signing clandestine agreements with European powers, and he claimed that Martin Luther King Jr. affiliated with communist agents in Russia.29 Benson freely taught these ideas during his nearly six decades as an LDS General Authority and Westover and other Latter-day Saints imbibed them as if they had come from God. As Westover revealingly writes, “my father was a Bircher and read a lot of Benson.”30

Westover’s gripping memoir made me realize that my grandparents’ religious devotion in the LDS Church is not the same devotion as the Westover family’s. In fact, my grandparents mirror most Mormons, who are neither radical doomsday preppers nor clannish conspiracy theorists. My grandparents, rather, are middle-of-the road members—devout Latter-day Saints but not rigid, preachy or self-righteous. They are conservative Democrats with reasonable emergency food reserves and a healthy perspective on the role of government in our lives. More importantly, they follow the current teachings of the church and are not beholden to any political ideology or cause. In my experience, the real outliers in Mormonism are not my grandparents but the Birchers, preppers and conspiracists who are beholden to a political ideology and cause. In my view, they follow President Benson more than they follow current President Russell M. Nelson and they continue to promote Benson’s conspiracy theories, even when the church has tried to move on from them.31

I’m glad my grandparents never embraced Ezra Taft Benson’s conspiracy theories, although they did prepare my family and me for the End Times.

Perhaps we didn’t escape Benson after all.

Madison S. Harris is a senior at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs where she is a double major in Biomedical Sciences and History with minors in Leadership Communication Studies, Civic Engagement through U.S. History, and Pre-Medicine. She is involved in several organizations on campus including the Chancellor’s Leadership Class, Honors Program, Student Government Association, Ethics Bowl Team, and Phi Alpha Theta History Honors Society. After graduation, she will attend medical school pursing a dual MD/MHA. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, juggling, and yoga. 

Footnotes:

 1. I am grateful to my father, Matthew L. Harris, for allowing me to raid his library. I am also grateful to Taylor G. Petrey, editor of Dialogue, for his thoughtful critique of this essay. 

2. Tara Westover, Educated (New York: Random House, 2018).

3. Westover, Educated, preface.

4. Ezra Taft Benson, “Prepare for the Days of Tribulation,” 1980, view the original transcript at https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1980/10/prepare-for-the-days-of-tribulation?lang=eng.

5. Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 227. See also See also Robert Alan Goldberg, Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), xi-xii.

6. Harris, Watchman on the Tower, 5.

7. Matthew L. Harris, Watchman on the Tower: Ezra Taft Benson and the Making of the Mormon Right (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020), 6, 70. Most of Benson’s conspiracy theories are articulated in Ezra Taft Benson, An Enemy Hath Done This, comp. by Jerreld L. Newquist (Salt Lake City, UT: Parliament Publishers, 1969).

8. See Richard Gid Powers, Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism (New York: The Free Press, 1995); Ellen Schrecker, Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1998); and D.J. Mulloy, The World of the John Birch Society: Conspiracy, Conservatism, and the Cold War (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014).

9. Benson, An Enemy Hath Done This, 132.

10. Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy, 227.

11. Robert A. Goldberg, “From New Deal to New Right,” Matthew L. Harris, ed. Thunder from the Right: Ezra Taft Benson in Mormonism and Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019), 77-79. See also Harris, Watchman on the Tower, 56-59; Mulloy, The World of the John Birch Society, 172-78; and Goldberg, Enemies Within, 39-48.

12. Harris, Watchman on the Tower, 57-58, 63.

13. Benson, An Enemy Hath Done This, 65.

14. Jan Shipps, “Ezra Taft Benson and the Conservative Turn of ‘Those Amazing Mormons,’” in Randall Balmer and Jana Riess, eds., Mormonism and American Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 81. 

15. Benson, An Enemy Hath Done This, 142. 

16. Benson, An Enemy Hath Done This, 65.

17. Harris, Watchman on the Tower, 2.

18. See legal scholar Mary Anne Franks, The Cult of the Constitution: Our Dead Devotion to Guns and Free Speech (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019) for an excellent introduction to Constitutional fanatics including Benson and his close friend Cleon Skousen. See also Philip Barlow, “Chosen Land, Chosen People: Religious American Exceptionalism Among the Mormons,” in Balmer and Riess, eds., Mormonism and American Politics, chap. 7. For Benson demonizing those with different views, see Harris, Watchman on the Tower, 6-8, 60-63, 70-71, 77-78.

19. Benson, An Enemy Hath Done This, 43.

20. Benson, An Enemy Hath Done This, 67.

21. Matthew L. Harris and Madison S. Harris, “The Last State to Honor MLK: Utah and the Quest for Racial Justice,” Utah Historical Quarterly 33, no. 1 (Winter 2020): 5-21.

22. Benson, An Enemy Hath Done This, 192.

23. Benson, An Enemy Hath Done This, 192-93.

24. Campbell, Green, and Monson, Seeking the Promised Land, 141. 

25. For the point that most Mormons have consistently supported Republican candidates since the early 1970s, see Goldberg, “From New Deal to New Right,” 69; Campbell, Green, Monson, Seeking the Promised Land, 78-86; and Patrick Q. Mason, “Ezra Taft Benson and Modern (Book of) Mormon Conservativism,” in Patrick Q. Mason and John G. Turner, eds., Out of Obscurity: Mormonism Since 1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 63-64. For data on Mormons and the 2016 and 2020 elections, see Tad Walch, “ChurchBeat: What we know about Latter-day Saints votes in Utah, Arizona,” Deseret News, November 5, 2020.

26. David E. Campbell, John C. Green, J. Quin Monson, Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 261-62.

27. For the Bundys, see Harris, Watchman on the Tower, 121-22. For Rowe, see Christopher James Blythe, Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 264-68.

28. Westover, Educated, 10.

29. Westover, Educated, 43, 247; Harris, Watchman on the Tower, 123.

30. Westover, quoted in Harris, Watchman on the Tower, 123.

31.  Harris, Watchman on the Tower, 127-29. The church recently updated its General Handbook in which it counseled members to avoid sources that “seek to promote anger, contention, fear, or baseless conspiracy theories.” As quoted in Peggy Fletcher Stack, “LDS handbook adds warning against prejudice and misinformation, revises entries on sex abuse, conversion therapy, stillborn babies and more,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 18, 2020.