Tim Ballard, Ezra Taft Benson, and Latter-day Saints' Relationship with the Far Right
At the center of it all is our willingness to accept ideas simply because they come from another member of the Church.
In 1968, President David O. McKay was over it.
Six years earlier, Elder Ezra Taft Benson, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, had starting speaking publicly in support of the John Birch Society. The Birch Society was a far-right political group, known for being “fiercely anti-communist — and fond of crackpot theories.” The group argued that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a secret communist agent, and famously asserted that the entire civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s was a communist plot—and that its leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., were avowed communists. Historically, its rise in that era of American history is largely attributed to conspiracy theories and racist ideas.
[John Birch Society founder Robert W.] Welch even blamed communists for putting fluoride in public water supplies with the passion of today's anti-vaxxers. And like Donald Trump and his devoted base, Birchers refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of their political opposition.
Elder Benson was a fervent anti-communist, and spoke about communism by name in General Conference every year from 1961 to 19701. He spoke openly and regularly about “freedom” being intrinsically a gospel principle, seemingly as much as our divine nature as children of God. For example, in this General Conference talk from 1966, Elder Benson speaks directly about those who don’t take his fight again communism as inherent to the gospel of Jesus Christ:
There are some who apparently feel that the fight for freedom is separate from the Gospel… Should we counsel people, “Just live your religion—there's no need to get involved in the fight for freedom?” No we should not, because our stand for freedom is a most basic part of our religion…2
Many members of the Church did align with Elder Benson’s views, and membership of the Birch Society among Latter-day Saints surged. Elder Benson spoke frequently at Birch Society events3, and while his name never showed up on its rosters, his son Reed was first Utah’s state coordinator for the organization and eventually its national director of public relations. President McKay generally preferred to avoid public statements against Elder Benson’s political actions, and as a result both Elder Benson and many Latter-day Saints saw the actions as approved, and even endorsed, by the Church.4 Elder Benson even tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to get approval for the non-LDS head of the Birch Society to speak at General Conference.5
For some Latter-day Saints, these connections blurred the lines between the Church and the Birch Society. This fact was not lost on other Church leaders, such as Elder Hugh B. Brown, who disagreed with Elder Benson’s politics (a group that grew to include Mark E. Petersen, Harold B. Lee, N. Eldon Tanner, Joseph Fielding Smith, and others):
[I]n the minds of quite a number of the Church members the goals of the Church and the John Birch Society were identical and they joined the John Birch Society feeling that they were in a religious crusade against communism and had the blessing of the President of the Church and other Church leaders in so acting.6
In 1963, Elder Benson was sent to preside over the European mission. While there was no specific statement from the First Presidency, it was widely understood that he had been sent out of the country to cool off a bit, and step away from his political efforts. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith said in a letter that “by the time he returns I hope he will get all of the political notions out of his system.”7 But all the same, a few years later in 1968, Elder Benson’s name came up as a potential running mate to George C. Wallace in a campaign for President of the United States. That was when President McKay pulled the plug, and quietly denied Elder Benson’s request to run.
It would take another ten years or more, but in time, the John Birch Society’s influence (and membership) faded, and Elder Benson’s political influence faded as well. He eventually became a beloved prophet and president of the Church, who gave multiple landmark Conference talks before his health gave out. Retelling this history is not intended to take away from his Church contributions, but rather to provide contrast for the next story.
Just over a month ago, news broke that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had publicly denounced Tim Ballard.
Ballard founded Operation Underground Railroad, an anti-sex trafficking organization, in 2013. While its cause is laudable, the organization quickly went under fire for its methods; over the next ten years, it took flak for traumatizing children, acting unethically, exaggerating its successes, appropriating Harriet Tubman’s name, connecting itself to QAnon and far-right/alt-right politics, and Ballard’s claiming that he knew where to rescue children because ancient prophets, including Nephi, told him through a psychic. Early on, the U.S. Justice Department advised its teams against being involved with O.U.R. Ultimately, Ballard became the subject of multiple allegations and lawsuits accusing him of sexual misconduct with O.U.R. employees.
Some insisted that the Church’s public repudiation of Ballard was not actually sanctioned by Church leaders, and was possibly just the work of a rogue spokesperson. Tim Ballard fired back that it didn’t really happen. But the public statements were followed quickly by the Church removing content mentioning Ballard from its website, and Church-owned Deseret Book pulling his books from the shelves. The Church may have known about Ballard’s personal indiscretions, but the public did not until the weeks after the Church’s disavowal.
In the Church’s official statement, it wasn’t the organization’s controversial methods or Ballard’s moral depravity that were the focus; instead, it was that Tim Ballard had traded on Elder M. Russell Ballard’s name along the way. Tim Ballard described O.U.R. as being “backed by” Elder Ballard (no relation), and claimed his goal was to “use the anti-trafficking cause to bring Americans to the Mormon faith,” or “lead them to the covenant.” It does appear that Elder Ballard was involved at some level; the statement from the Church references multiple times a “friendship” between the two Ballards, and news articles mention other connections, including possibly a partnership in a for-profit business. A quick Google search turns up photos of Tim Ballard and M. Russell Ballard together.
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In addition, there have been many other connections between the Church and O.U.R., with its leadership and its donor base comprising largely Latter-day Saints. Glenn Beck, the well-known conservative radio host and Latter-day Saint, at least partly funded O.U.R. from the beginning.
It’s likely that these connections blurred lines for Church members, the same way Elder Benson’s involvement in the John Birch Society had 60 years earlier. Instead of O.U.R. bringing people to the Church, it seems that the arrangement actually went the other way, with Latter-day Saints building up the ranks of Operation Underground Railroad.
In many ways, O.U.R. is a direct descendent of the John Birch Society. The just-mentioned Glenn Beck, host of the eighth-most popular radio show in the United States, has cited Ezra Taft Benson and Cleon Skousen—both of them Birchers and prominent Church members—as influences.
There’s no question that there is an ideological kinship between the John Birch Society and O.U.R., but there is also a relationship in their tactics. Both leveraged—with permission or not—the names of trusted General Authorities to engender both credibility for the organization and implied Church endorsement of it. It’s an effective recruiting strategy. The Birchers themselves called the Church “a very good recruiting ground.”8
The connection today between the Church and ultraconservative politics is not much of a mystery; it didn’t start with Elder Benson, but it certainly got a massive boost. Prior to 1968, Utah’s electoral votes in presidential elections had gone to a Republican 10 times, and to a Democrat 8 times. Since that time, the state has been reliably red—a Republican has won the state in 14 straight presidential elections. While this shift can’t be attributed completely to President Benson or any one influence, and while Utah is decreasingly a reflection of only the Church, there is no question that President Benson’s extreme conservatism influenced politics in the Church.
And as for leveraging Church relationships for recruiting to another cause, it doesn’t only happen in politics. We see it all the time as Latter-day Saints, and a relatable example is multi-level marketing businesses (or MLMs, such as Nu Skin, doTERRA, LuLaRoe, and others). While MLMs may not leverage the name of an apostle of God, they certainly trade on the trusting relationships we have with each other as Latter-day Saints. New ventures can be scary, but when we see our Relief Society president or Sunday school teacher or deacons quorum advisor leading the way, that changes things.
When the matter is financial, such as with MLMs—or with Tim Ballard soliciting donations for O.U.R.—this is called “affinity fraud.” There was an exaggerated case of this earlier this year, when a $500 million fraud scheme targeted Latter-day Saints in the Las Vegas area. A group of 900 people, that included “surgeons, real estate developers, Mormon bishops, retirees and stay-at-home mothers,” invested their savings. Everyone lost everything. Quotes from the defrauded belie the role that trusted Church relationships played in convincing people to empty their retirement accounts and put their money into the investment scheme:
We were a little nervous, but we trusted him. Because we were friends and belonged to the same church, the red flags were heart-shaped. I was like, “Wow. We are really lucky to be involved in this investment.”…
There was never a hiccup. My bishop was involved and invested, and so were my closest friends.
The Church’s General Handbook warns specifically against trading on Church relationships for financial gain, calling it a “shameful betrayal of trust and confidence.” But this kind of behavior persists, and it doesn’t look like it will stop anytime soon. Elder Holland quoted this line from a newspaper article in a speech to BYU students in 1982, which sums it up succinctly:
It’s very easy for people to bridge the gap from unbelievability to believability if church affiliation is used.9
Whether it’s politics or business, why are we so trusting of other Latter-day Saints? You can argue that it goes back to early in this dispensation, when the Saints came to trust only each other for their own safety, against mobs in Nauvoo, Kirtland, and Far West. That may be somewhat true, with remnants of that generational trauma still in play. It seems more likely, though, that these trusting relationships are an artifact of our insular Latter-day Saint communities today. Within Utah (at risk of generalizing), there tend to be large, multi-generational families that gather for Sunday dinners and form their own in-groups. Outside of Utah, wards often are those families.
These are the people we look to, often subconsciously, when deciding what we will say, wear, and do. Seeing a member of the Church participating in an activity or an organization is a heuristic—a mental shortcut—that tells us it’s okay. And at its worst, following these shortcuts causes us to confuse a different organization with the Church, and develop a testimony of these philosophies of men, mingled with the Church. As long as we are willing to accept an idea just because we see a Church member promoting it, we will fall into this same trap again and again.
When President Spencer W. Kimball pushed back on far-right politics in the Church during his Church presidency, it was because he wanted “to protect the Church against being misunderstood as espousing ultraconservative politics, or—in this case—espousing an unthinking ‘follow the leader’ mentality.”10 Or, in other words, the problem is not whether someone’s views are conservative or liberal politically, but rather our willingness to follow without critical examination. President Kimball saw the problems this caused with the John Birch Society and warned us against it, but that didn’t stop us as Latter-day Saints from doing it again with O.U.R.
President Benson and Elder M. Russell Ballard are different people, in different circumstances and different eras. But these stories aren’t really about them; they’re about us, as Latter-day Saints. Being politically involved is a good thing. Opposing sex trafficking is a good thing. And trusting others is a good thing. But if an organization or an idea ever rivals our testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we’ve gone too far.
Ezra Taft Benson reading copy of his general conference talk, 2 Oct. 1966, photocopy in “Hugh B. Brown's File on the John Birch Society.” When obscure primary sources are referred to in this essay, they are (as in this case) as cited in “Ezra Taft Benson and Mormon Political Conflicts,” D. Michael Quinn, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (1993) 26 (2): 1–87.
“Ezra Taft Benson Addresses Rally,” Deseret News, 7 Jan. 1963, A-3; Drew Pearson, “Benson Embarrasses His Church,” Washington Post, 22 Jan. 1963, B-23; “Church Embarrassed Over Ezra Taft Benson Stand,” Ogden Standard-Examiner, 22 Jan. 1963, 4.
Sheri Dew, “Ezra Taft Benson,” in Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism: The History Scripture, Doctrine, and Procedure of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5 vols. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1992), 1:102-103.
Referred to in minutes, LDS archives, of meeting on 15 March 1966 of David O. McKay, N. Eldon Tanner, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Mark E. Petersen in Huntsville, Utah.
Eugene Campbell's typed draft of Hugh B. Brown biography, chapter titled, “Responsibility Without Authority-The 1st Counselor Years,” 11, Campbell Papers.
Joseph Fielding Smith to Ralph R. Harding, 30 Oct. 1963, photocopy in folder 2, box 4, King Papers, and in folder 22, box 5, Buerger Papers.
“Birch Dinner in Salt Lake City Vexes Mormons,” New York Times, 8 Apr. 1966, 28, published as “Welch Says Mormons Make Good Birchers,” Minneapolis Tribune, 9 Apr. 1966.
Peter Gillins, Sunday Star Bulletin and Advertiser, Honolulu, January 10, 1982, as quoted in Jeffrey R. and Patricia T. Holland, “The Inconvenient Messiah,” February 2, 1982.
Edward L. Kimball to D. Michael Quinn, 14 Aug., 20 Aug. 1992, concerning discussions with his father in 1980.