In the David O. McKay era, a spectre was indeed haunting Mormonism — the spectre of Communism. And it wasn't just whispered about in the halls, it was shouted from the podium, particularly by Apostle Ezra Taft Benson, as recounted in "Confrontation with Communism," Chapter 12 of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (all quotes are from Chapter 12 of the book). It was depicted as a conspiracy to undermine everything good about America and the Church. As we now know, it turned out that nationalism and ethnic strife eventually swamped political Communism. But no one knew that's how it was going to turn out. For most Americans and the vast majority of Mormons during the McKay years (1951-70), Communism was the avowed enemy of the West, immovably opposed to truth, justice, and the American way.
McKay's Own Views
McKay was ordained an Apostle in 1906, so he actually observed the Russian Revolution of 1917 as a General Authority. In 1936, he joined (as a counselor) in a First Presidency message denouncing Communism:
Since Communism, established, would destroy our American Constitutional government, to support communism is treasonable to our free institutions ....
Communism being thus hostile to loyal American citizenship and incompatible with true Church membership, of necessity no loyal American citizen and no faithful Church member can be a Communist.
McKay thought "the primary evil of Communism was its denial to the individual of free agency," a criticism he also applied to wartime Germany and Japan. But after the end of WWII, atheistic communism was the only remaining threat, so it became the focus of all the rhetoric. And it affected the Church directly: the LDS Czech mission was closed in the fifties after two LDS missionaries were arrested and held; the LDS missionaries in Hong Kong (threatened by Red China) were relocated to Hawaii; and the worldwide LDS missionary force shrunk dramatically as young Americans were drafted to fight the Communists in Korea. It was not hard to view Communism as doing literally doing Satan's work.
Ezra Taft Benson
In January 1953, Benson began an 8-year term as Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower cabinet. He had McKay's blessing to take a leave of absence from the day-to-day responsibilities of an Apostle. But Benson was permanently politicized by his stint in Washington, and his statements after returning to his religious duties in 1961 often contained a strong political component. Even more controversial was Benson's association (but never formal membership) with the John Birch Society (JBS), an extreme right-wing political group. For example, here are Benson's remarks from the October 1961 LDS General Conference:
Communism is fundamentallly socialism. ... No true Latter-day Saint and no true American can be a socialist or a communist or support programs leading in that direction.
This took earlier LDS statements to a new level. But Benson wasn't flying solo: "McKay implicitly endorsed Benson's position [at a meeting in 1961], as he would do regularly in the future." Some senior LDS leaders objected to Benson's equating socialism to communism. Increasingly open disagreement between leaders contributed to "a growing rift within the Church." McKay's role in this is puzzling. He gave other LDS leaders wide leeway in voicing their own views. At times he supported and encouraged Benson; at other times he clearly opposed the John Birch Society and its methods, as in the following First Presidency statement:
We deplore the presumption of some politicians, especially officers, co-ordinators and members of the John Birch Society, who undertake to align the Church or its leadership with their partisan views.
When confronted by Benson, McKay backpedaled, and JBS Mormons who wrote letters to the First Presidency received a form letter over the signature of McKay's secretary assuring them that their membership in the Church was not jeopardized by their JBS membership. The letter noted that the Church was not opposed to the JBS, only to anyone or any organization using the Church to recruit its own membership or to imply Church sponsorship. But other senior leaders were disturbed by Benson's activities. Harold B. Lee is quoted as saying, "Elder Benson [due to his service in Washington] had lost his spiritual tone and would no longer accept counsel."
Riding Out the Storm
In September 1963, Benson attended a ceremonial JBS dinner in honor of Robert Welch, its founder. In a speech at the dinner, Benson delivered laudatory comments about Welch. When asked by reporters after the dinner whether he endorsed Welch's portrayal of Eisenhower as a Communist puppet of sorts, "Benson sidestepped the question [and] refused to defend Eisenhower." Less than a month later, McKay called Benson to preside over the European Mission. While there is no hint that the action was intended as punishment or exile, it was "widely seen as a rebuff to Benson's political activism." For his part, Benson graciously accepted the called and deflected any idea that he was unhappy with the assignment or unwilling to go.
Similar vacillation by McKay — opposing Benson's activities when meeting with his counselors Hugh B. Brown and N. Eldon Tanner, but encouraging Benson's activities when meeting with Benson personally — continued for years, right up until McKay's passing in 1970. Under McKay's successors Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee, Benson stopped his political activity. Understandably, some Mormons were anxious when Benson assumed the office of the President in 1985, but his earlier political views did not resurface in his public statements during his tenure as President of the Church from 1985 to 1994.
The whole lengthy Communist episode was confusing to rank-and-file Mormons and frustrating for LDS leaders. It's a chapter in LDS history you won't read anywhere else, so if you want to get the full story instead of my quick summary you'll have to read the book. Several conclusions can be drawn from the detailed review of events recounted by Prince in this chapter. First, while Benson was the visible spokesman for LDS anti-Communist views, McKay shared that view to an extent not previously appreciated. McKay stopped short of endorsing the JBS, but apart from that he consistently supported Benson's views and activities right up until his final year.
Second, the Communist issue showed how much trouble "dissension among the Brethren" could cause if it became publicly observed and discussed. The obvious present policy of LDS leaders in maintaining a united front on all policy and doctrinal issues seems to be the "never again" lesson drawn from the division and controversy of the McKay years. That such division was allowed to persist under McKay was partly the result of his hands-off and deferential leadership style. It was also the result (at least in his later years) of his declining energy and focus, a natural and unavoidable development given life tenure. This last point raises the delicate issue of the impact of aging on the governing councils of the Church.
Finally, there's the issue of the extent to which Benson's rhetoric (supported behind the scenes by McKay) did shift the political views of Mormons, especially local leadership, permanently toward the right. While it's true that the country as a whole seems to have become more conservative since the Reagan years, Mormons have become almost uniformly conservative and Republican. Prince notes that "Mormonism's involvement in the 1960s with right-wing political extremism left a legacy that affects the church adversely to this day." More recently, "this imbalance became of sufficient concern that the First Presidency, in 1998, assigned one of the few Democratic General Authorities, Marlin K. Jensen, to give an interview to Salt Lake Tribune assuring readers that one may, indeed, simultaneously be a Democrat and a Mormon in good standing." Sounds like an attempt to swing the pendulum back, or at least prevent further migration.
Flash forward to 2006: the Democrat problem is back and the Church is again moving to the right. Much like Benson and McKay used Communism to push the LDS political position from the center to the right, it almost seems like conservatives in Mormon leadership are now using the gay marriage issue to move the Church from the right to the far right. Although I'm sure some think it's America that's moving left while the Church holds its ground. Like Einstein's trains, sometimes it's hard to tell who is moving.