In his biting critique of the Democratic Party’s election reform bill in early March, Mike Lee, the senior senator from Utah, said it was “written by the devil himself.”
Clearly meant as sarcasm—Lee also said he disagreed with “every single word” in the bill, including “the words ‘but’ and ‘the’”—the statement’s extremity was far from unique when compared to the senator’s other increasingly partisan, and remarkably stretched, rhetoric. Last fall, he insisted that America was “not a democracy,” and this spring he cited a beloved Mormon hymn when he voted against Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which he referred to as a “monstrosity.” And while he did not add fuel to the fire of Trump’s fraudulent election scam, he defended the former president during the February impeachment trial, and then held a fundraiser at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort that featured far-right figures Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert.
It is becoming increasingly clear, in other words, where Lee falls within the battle over the GOP: rather than a return to moderation and compromise, he is staking his flag on the radical, and increasingly conspiratorial, wing.
Simultaneously, observers are quick to contrast him to the other Utah senator, Mitt Romney, the former GOP presidential nominee who has positioned himself as a more centrist figure on a number of issues, at times directly at odds with the Trump caucus in which Lee is frequently found.
That both senators not only represent the same state, but are also prominent members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, adds important context to their different political positions. Moreover, their disagreements not only exemplify the fissures of the current Republican Party, but also the divergent trajectories within modern Mormon conservatism.
When Mitt Romney entered the national stage with his presidential runs in 2008 and 2012, he offered a particular image that many in his LDS faith had spent decades perfecting: a compassionate conservative, a dedicated technocrat, and even an optimistic pragmatist. He was clean-cut, self-effacing, and open to compromises, characteristics that matched a wholesome public persona that had been attached to Mormonism since the Osmonds stole American hearts.
Utah politicians had long prided themselves on evading the deep partisan politics that fractured the broader nation, claiming that they modeled a much more humane form of governance. Granted, that’s an easier task in a deeply red state where most divisions concerned the degree of conservatism. Yet senators like Robert Bennett and governors like Jon Huntsman—and, more recently, Spencer Cox, one of the GOP governors most likely to speak out against Trump—have crafted a tradition of collaboration meant to transcend narrow-minded discord, build consensus, prioritize human dignity, and draw from research and data. These qualities are among the reasons that many commentators have, at various times, posited that the Mormons would lead the conservative charge to move past the Trump era.
Yet while this well-tuned image has comfortably fit a series of elite LDS men on the national stage, it has not been the only, or perhaps even the most dominant, narrative of modern Mormon politics.
When Mike Lee rode the wave of Tea Party angst in 2010 to unseat Senator Bennett, he tapped into a deeper heritage within Utah’s LDS culture, one that dates back several decades and is a far cry from the more established, respectable image that Romney and others carefully cultivate. He denounced the new healthcare system as European-style socialism, claimed Obama was a tyrant-in-waiting, and generally cast the government as a corrupt agency that was evil to the core. This Christian libertarianism has become a hallmark in certain segments of the Religious Right, but it was also drawing from a particular well of Mormon thought whose mid-twentieth century champion disproportionately shaped the LDS Church’s modern political culture: Ezra Taft Benson.
For most of the faith’s first six decades, Mormon leaders strove to carve out their own political party and positions. However, as part of their attempt to achieve political acceptance at the turn of the twentieth century, they embraced America’s two-party system and sought to prove their patriotic credentials, to a surprising degree of success. But there soon appeared a new division: For the next half-century, a majority of the Mormon hierarchy supported the Republicans, while a majority of average saints supported the Democrats. For example, Utah voted for Franklin Roosevelt four consecutive times, each of which was over the loud and increasingly frustrated protestations of their church president, Heber J. Grant. Long before the state became a reliable GOP stronghold, Mormons were part of the Democrats’ seemingly impenetrable voting bloc.
The cultural battles over Cold War communism, debates over social reforms and civil rights, and conservatives’ agitated rejection of the liberal consensus eventually brought Utah Mormons into the Republican fold. But few voices were as influential in that process as Benson, who was ordained an apostle in the church in 1943 and, decades later, ascended to its presidency. Raised on a farm in rural Idaho and working as the head of a series of agricultural cooperatives, Benson gained a national reputation for attacking both Roosevelt’s domestic policies and socialism’s foreign threats. Because of his prominent voice, he was added to Eisenhower’s administration as the secretary of agriculture, where he soon became a thorn in the party’s side for his lack of moderation and frequent partisan attacks.
In some ways, Benson helped sustain Mormonism’s march into the American mainstream, even earning the cover, accompanying a glowing article, of Time magazine. Much of his rhetoric matched the Christian triumphalism of the period. “Founded on the truth of Christian principles,” he proclaimed at an LDS general conference, “this nation has become the world’s greatest power.” Faith, devotion, and patriotism, the perceived hallmarks of America in the 1950s, were the prism through which Benson and his broader faith gained assimilation.
But Benson also embodied the cultural fissures that grew in response to that same mainstream, as detailed in a recent book by Matthew Harris, Watchman on the Tower. Terrified that the ever-present specter of socialism was seeping into the nation, he became increasingly extreme in his denunciation of domestic threats—the mid-century equivalent of the “deep state”—and his embrace of improbable conspiracies. Under the influence of national figures like Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, and drawing from Mormon scriptures that warned about “secret combinations,” Benson saw global and clandestine cabals manipulating the world and eroding religious liberties and capitalistic principles.
As the culture wars progressed, Benson only became more extreme. He denounced Martin Luther King Jr. and “the so-called civil rights movement” as “a communist program for revolution,” and even came to see Eisenhower, previously his mentor, as part of the nefarious communist plot. (He sent copies of Welch’s The Politician, an anti-Eisenhower text so conspiratorial that it was denounced by Barry Goldwater, as Christmas presents to his fellow apostles.) His rhetoric became so frequent and fringe that the FBI kept an expanding file on him, particularly his involvement with the Birch Society; and Eisenhower had to publicly distance himself from his former protégé. When there was movement in 1968 for newly elected Richard Nixon to restore Benson to his cabinet position, the president who was otherwise known for his no-holds-barred partisanship considered the Mormon apostle too toxic.
Yet Benson found acclaim with the extremist wing of the evolving GOP. George Wallace, the controversial Alabama governor known for his refusal to accept desegregation, chose Benson as his running-mate for an independent presidential ticket before David O. McKay, LDS president at the time, refused to sign off on it. And the Birch Society continued to promote Benson’s beliefs, even if his ecclesiastical position precluded him from official affiliation.
Nor was Benson alone in paving an arena for radical, conspiratorial thinking within LDS culture. Another contemporary, Cleon Skousen, a popular writer who briefly worked for the FBI, penned one of the best-selling pieces of anti-communist propaganda during the era, The Naked Communist, which cast American liberalism and progressivism as tethered to a global conspiracy; his All-American Society has been identified as one of the most extreme examples of rightwing thinking during the era. Benson praised Skousen’s work to the general LDS audience, and he quickly became one of the most influential writers within the faith for several generations.
Eventually, church leaders, realizing the liability Benson had become, sought to rein in the renegade apostle, which they did through a serious of conscious decisions and deliberate policies over the following decades. And George Romney, Mitt’s father, succeeded in replacing Benson as the most prominent LDS politician. But the impact remained. Given church leaders’ relative silence on political issues during the period, which was part of their attempt to maintain a front of neutrality, Benson’s was the last and loudest authoritative voice in the political sphere, and general members took his cues. In a 1972 poll, for instance, around a third of the church believed a conspiracy that Black Americans were determined to overthrow the country.
Even as ecclesiastical authorities presented a much more muted image, and LDS politicians like Bob Bennett and Mitt Romney carved a much more moderate identity in the twenty-first century, the legacy of Benson’s conspiratorial worldview remained like smoldering embers never far from the surface. Glenn Beck, a Mormon convert and one of the most prominent conspiracy theorists during Obama’s tenure, resurrected Skousen’s writings, turning the deceased author’s Five Thousand Year Leap into a bestseller. Cliven and Ammon Bundy, Mormon ranchers and survivalists whose following continues to grow, directly cite Benson as an inspiration for their anti-government views.
But it is Mike Lee, the man who unseated Bennett and has become a central player in Trump’s GOP, who may become the true inheritor of Benson’s mantle. His increasing embrace of Trumpian talking points, and willingness to affiliate with, if never fully adopt, the conspiratorial arguments of the far right, connect him to this radical Mormon past even as it distances him from the more moderate Mormon present. (Notably, another Mormon politician, Utah congressman Burgess Owens, has been even more extreme with his partisanship, and has even been associated with QAnon.)
This division between the two Mormon conservative camps, as exemplified by the two Utah senators, Lee and Romney, is unlikely to be bridged anytime soon. It is left to be seen if Lee’s mission, as was Benson’s legacy, will eventually be identified as too extreme. Both Lee and Romney see their particular positions and approaches as fulfillments of their faith, both claim broad support from their constituencies, and neither seems willing to concede the fight. Their battle is not only over Mormonism’s conservative heritage, but also over the soul of the GOP’s future.
Benjamin E. Park (@BenjaminEPark) is an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University, editor of A Companion to American Religious History, co-editor of Mormon Studies Review, and author of Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier. He is currently writing a history of Mormonism in America for W.W. Norton/Liveright.