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Benson’s Expected Leadership of Mormons Raises Concerns

Times Religion Writer

The virtual certainty that Ezra Taft Benson, an outspoken warrior against communism and feminism, will become the next president of the Mormon Church has raised concern among Mormon liberals and intellectuals over the future direction of the 5.8-million-member religious body.

Some fear an even-greater conservatism under Benson’s leadership, while others predict little, if any, change.

“I think the Mormon Church is headed into a period of unbelievable conservatism and very great danger,” J. D. Williams, a political science professor at the University of Utah and a descendant of Mormon pioneer Brigham Young, said Wednesday.

As president of the church’s Council of Twelve Apostles, Benson, 86, secretary of agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration, is next in line to succeed Spencer W. Kimball, who died in Salt Lake City Tuesday at the age 90. Kimball’s funeral will be held at 9 a.m. PST Saturday in the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square, adjoining the church’s Salt Lake City headquarters.

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Williams cited Benson’s “early support of the John Birch Society,” his “condemnation of social welfare programs” and his “theocratic” view of the church presidency as “prophet, seer and revelator” as reasons for pessimism.

“I had hopes that the presidency would bring enlarging qualities. . . . I no longer have that optimism,” Williams said. “Since 1961, there has been a continuing line of development that makes it certain where he (Benson) will attempt to lead the church.”

In contrast, however, Eugene England, professor of English at Brigham Young University, predicted that Benson would soften his personal views in deference to “the larger church and his colleagues” in the ruling council.

“People become very conscious of their responsibility to the quorum (ruling council), whereas before (they are elected), they may speak out more strongly,” England said.

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Jerry Cahill, a spokesman for the church, said he did not foresee “any major change in anything in any way” as a result of Benson’s anticipated presidency.

“The work of the church will continue essentially as it is . . . and that has been a dynamic, capable leadership,” Cahill said.

Benson is considered to be the most politically conservative member of the Council of Twelve Apostles, the governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, just below the ruling hierarchy. He has headed the council for 12 years.

The Mormon Church, known for its social and moral conservatism and its emphasis on thrift and family values, has grown rapidly throughout the world in the last decade. It has an estimated 4 million U.S. members.

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An apostle for 42 years, Benson was a supporter of the right-wing John Birch Society during the 1960s. His son, Reed Benson, for a time was its public relations director.

During the Eisenhower Administration, Benson took an eight-year leave of absence from church affairs to serve as a Cabinet member--the first Mormon to hold such a position. An advocate of freeing agriculture from government controls, Benson angered many farmers with his program of flexible supports for major crops. He has also firmly supported the gold standard as a means to stabilize the U.S. economy.

In 1967, Benson called the “so-called civil rights movement . . . a Communist program for revolution in America.” In 1974, he endorsed the political platform of the extremist American Independent Party as “God-ordained” and said a good Mormon, “if he is to follow the Gospel,” could not easily be a liberal Democrat.

In the past, Benson has taken an autocratic attitude toward the role of the Mormon president.

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In a 1980 speech at Brigham Young University, Benson expounded on the “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophets.” He said the Prophet, “the only man who speaks for the Lord on everything,” could speak or act on any matter, including politics. He added that those who follow the “living Prophet and the first presidency” will “be blessed,” while those who “reject (them) will suffer.”

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The following year and again in 1982, Benson told general conferences of the church that “a mother’s place is in the home.” He blamed working mothers who leave home in search of personal fulfillment for causing such blights as divorce, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and pornography. Benson has also attacked the equal rights amendment as a threat to the family. His more recent sermons, however, have avoided political ideology.

By Monday at the latest, the Council of Twelve will meet to “pray, discuss the matter and, growing out of that, a motion will be made to reorganize the first presidency,” Cahill said.

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In a tradition that began when Brigham Young assumed leadership of the church after the assassination of its founder, Joseph Smith, in 1844, the line of succession for the chief office has always been to the oldest member of the Council of Twelve.

Cahill said the only condition under which Benson would not be elevated to the top office was if he disqualified himself, “based on a revelation from the Lord.”

The 86-year-old Benson, “like aging basketball players, has lost a step or two,” said Cahill, commenting on the expected new president’s vigor.

“He had a total hip replacement after a horse he was holding for a friend kicked him (in 1978). That took some of the spunk out of him . . . but he’s mentally alert (and) ready to go,” Cahill said.

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