John Birch Society forges on in Utah

Deseret News/June 16, 2003
By Jerry D. Spangler and Bob Bernick Jr.

The Berlin Wall has crumbled, the Soviet Union is splintered into inept republics and the Cold War is moving to a distant memory.

So it might stand to reason that the guardian of anti-communist vigilance, the John Birch Society, would find itself a relic of bygone days.

Not so. In fact, under a different name - one many Utah lawmakers didn't associate with the society - the old communist fighters appeared before the Utah Legislature last session. And they nearly got an anti-United Nations resolution passed in the House.

The 45-year-old society hasn't abandoned its roots, however.

"There is an assumption that communism has fallen," said Bliss Tew, Utah coordinator for the John Birch Society. "But you look at Red China with its military threat, at Venezuela where they have a communist president, look at Fidel Castro in Cuba, and look at North Korea and Vietnam, and one-fifth of the world's population still suffers under a communist regime."

Tew, who lives in conservative Utah County, is not only preaching the society's message of anti-communism and getting out of the United Nations to disciples there, but he has coordinated an unprecedented media campaign to take that message to the Utah masses via billboards, radio and television ads running during the 2002 Olympics and LDS Church biannual general conferences.

In the 2003 Legislature, Get US Out! of the United Nations, a nationwide committee sponsored by the John Birch Society, which has three Utah chapters, took its cause to the Utah House. It raised thousands of dollars and spent months leading up to the Legislature mailing out information kits and meeting with lawmakers.

"I would say the message (on the United Nations) is resonating very, very well," Tew said, pointing to independent polls by Utah media that show from 27 to 33 percent of Utahns agree the United States should get out of the United Nations. The society failed in getting HR7 passed in the House. But leaders of Get US Out! of the United Nations say they will be back before the 2004 session to try again. The new society

Make no mistake. Today's John Birch Society is not exactly your daddy's John Birch Society.

Sure, the messages warning of unlimited government power, foreign regimes and a one-world government threatening constitutional freedoms carry the same tone and tenor. And the society's extensive bookstore offers up writings dating back almost a half century.

But the society is operating more subtly these days, often under the public's radar. For example, most Utah lawmakers the Deseret News spoke to said they did not connect Get US Out! with the John Birch Society.

"I was not aware of that," said House Majority Leader Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, who led the fight to kill HR7, the resolution that asked Congress and President Bush to get the United States out of the United Nations.

Curtis said a group of Get US Out! members in his district came to his home during the last session, lobbying for HR7. He met with them and was given a package of information, which he admits he only "glanced at."

But knowing the John Birch Society was reflected in HR7 wouldn't have changed anything, Curtis added.

"I'm not opposed to discussing this issue" at another time, he said of the January debate. "But I had several (GOP) caucus members come to me and say now was not the time - with the Iraq issue before the United Nations."

Despite claims by Tew and Ann Turner, northern Utah Get US Out! chapter director, that Gov. Mike Leavitt and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked legislators not to take up HR7, Curtis said he had no discussions on the issue with any GOP leader outside of the Legislature.

The resolution's sponsor, Rep. Don Bush, R-Clearfield, said he was aware the John Birch Society was behind Get US Out! of the United Nations. Get US Out! approached him about sponsoring a model resolution drafted by the John Birch Society, Bush said, but he instead wrote his own resolution.

Bush, a veteran of the Korean War and World War II who often carries patriotic and veteran-related measures, said he introduced the resolution because he believed it was the right thing to do, not because any group asked him to.

"I don't belong to any of those (Get US Out! or the society) groups," he said.

Unlike opponents to HR7, Bush saw no problem with the timing of the resolution in the 2003 session.

"I thought it was the right time to run the resolution because of what was going on with President Bush trying to get U.N. support," said Rep. Bush, who is not related to the president.

Even though Saddam Hussein had flouted U.N. resolutions for a decade, the United Nations still wouldn't support the United States - and for that and many other reasons the United States shouldn't participate in the United Nations, said Rep. Bush.

Try and Try Again

Turner was disappointed but not surprised by the defeat of HR7.

"Several hundred volunteers (of Get US Out!) raised the money, made the effort" of contacting legislators, said Turner. John Birch Society materials given to lawmakers were purchased through Get US Out! donations, she said.

She anticipates another anti-U.N. resolution will be introduced in the 2004 Legislature, with or without the help of Rep. Bush, who said he's not decided if he'll sponsor his version again.

"We have a number of legislators who would sponsor one," Turner said.

Part of the society's strategy is to work within the political system, most often inside the Republican Party. Several years ago, members of Get US Out! were elected delegates to the state Republican convention and got a resolution approved asking Congress to get the United States out of the United Nations, Turner said.

Tew told the Deseret News that Get US Out! was created by the John Birch Society as a vehicle to educate the public on the dangers of the United Nations. And it is a means whereby individuals who disagree with the John Birch Society on other issues but agree on the United Nations, can become politically involved without belonging to the John Birch Society itself. Turner said she belongs to the society, but other members of Get US Out! in Utah do not.

Thomas Taylor heads up another John Birch Society committee in Utah called Tax Reform Immediately (TRIM), which publishes report cards on congressional voting records on selected tax issues. As with Get US Out!, Utahns can participate in TRIM without being members of the John Birch Society, society officials said.

Tew said he has no idea how many Utahns belong to the John Birch Society (the society does not keep lists). He estimates hundreds belong, subscribe to the New American magazine and support the society's position in the ballot box.

LDS Audience

The anti-communist, anti-U.N. move also finds fertile ground in some segments of the LDS culture. And Utah anti-U.N. backers freely incorporate into their own education campaigns Mormon doctrine and the teachings of leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

According to an account on the Get US Out! Web site, one committee member, "in keeping with the religious nature of many members," exhorted members to fast and pray for passage of HR7.

Among the materials the society and Get US Out! sent to all 104 legislators during the last general session is a chapter of "An Enemy Hath Done This," a book written in 1969 by then-LDS Church Apostle Ezra Taft Benson, who became president of the church in 1985. In the chapter titled: "The United Nations - Planned Tyranny," Benson writes that the United Nations does more evil than good and he reluctantly believes the United Nations should be disbanded.

The book is still in print, sold locally and nationally. Another Get US Out! mailing contains a different article about the United Nations written by Benson.

In tailoring its message to a Utah audience, the society also draws from the warnings of the late President J. Reuben Clark, a counselor to three different church presidents, a staunch Republican and a former State Department official and U.S. ambassador. Clark spoke out against the League of Nations, a failed world organization formed after WWI, and warned of what he believed is the warmongering charter of the United Nations.

Neither President Benson nor President Clark, who died in 1961, spoke for the church in comments about the United Nations but were reflecting their own opinions. Still, 80 percent of Utah legislators are faithful members of the LDS Church, and the society clearly wants them to know of the opinions of their church's former leaders.

Tew said their political perspectives and "foresight" undoubtedly appeal to members of the LDS faith who accept them as religious leaders, but their message "resonates well with nonmembers, too. People (outside the church) are very aware of who Ezra Taft Benson is and J. Reuben Clark's role in stopping the League of Nations."

Retired University of Utah political science professor J.D. Williams recalls his long-running debates with the society and two of its "patron saints," as he calls them, President Benson and W. Cleon Skousen, a former Salt Lake City police chief.

Skousen, 89, is still active, writing and speaking publicly. President Benson died in 1994.

Neither President Benson nor Skousen were members of the society, as they said on a number of occasions. But both President Benson and Skousen in the 1960s spoke often about constitutional issues and, like the society, "dealt with anti-communism, against socialism and big government," said Williams.

"Reed Benson, President Benson's son, headed up the Utah chapter of the society, and during the 1960s the society was very active in Utah," recalled Williams. "The society spoke to right-wing causes - isolationism, the danger of the communist menace, criticism of foreign aid and the impeachment of (then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Earl Warren."

The society and other conservative/constitutionalist advocates were visible in politics at that time, he noted.

"At one time in the 1960s, the society claimed to have seven to nine members who sat in the Utah House," recalls Williams.

The society and its adherents have not been as persuasive in local Utah politics since.

"But the far right wing is present" in Utah, said Williams, who at various times ran for office as a Democrat. "And since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of groups have turned to (criticism of) the United Nations. There are a number of people who are very proud about how (President) Bush has dealt with the U.N."

The appeal of the John Birch Society to some LDS Church members may rest in a fundamental premise of the society's teachings that a worldwide conspiracy exists that is intent on destroying freedom and democracy. A similar theme is found in the Book of Mormon, revered as scripture by faithful members of the church.

Ted Wilson, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah and a member of the church, said Utah's right wing has done an exceptional job of identifying religious teachings in the Book of Mormon that support their extreme political ideology, rarely drawing a distinction between religion and politics.

"But the Book of Mormon is also filled with liberal political teachings. Unfortunately, (those on the political left) have not done as good a job identifying those teachings," Wilson said.

Distrust in Us

One of the Utah society's biggest battles is negative stereotypes - something the mainstream media perpetuates, Tew said.

And the worst offender, Tew said, may well be the Deseret News. Tew, who was reluctant to talk with the newspaper for this story, said he was offended by one story that equated him with "right-wing wackos," and he finds it unconscionable that his letters to the editor have been edited, in his opinion, beyond anything remotely resembling what he originally submitted.

The Deseret News has also come to the attention of the national John Birch Society and Get US Out! committee, which castigated Deseret News Editor and Chief Operating Officer John Hughes.

According to one article posted on the national Web site, "Mr. Hughes is anything but an impartial observer. He is a former U.N. undersecretary general and a member of the internationalist-minded Council on Foreign Relations."

Turner said Hughes "has said nasty things about us" in the newspaper. She referred to a recent newspaper editorial opposing HR7. Said Hughes: "I do not write the editorials, but that particular editorial certainly does represent the viewpoint of our seven-person editorial board and the Deseret News."

Turner added that Hughes' "career is obviously supportive of the U.N. After all, he's a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. If Americans really knew what the U.N. was doing, they would support us, not them."

Hughes, who once worked as an assistant secretary general at the United Nations, said Utah John Birch members are "dead wrong" if they think he's edited their letters or steered news coverage against them.

"We give a pretty free rein to extreme viewpoints," Hughes said. "But we don't run nutty stuff."

If letters from society members were edited, Hughes added, the edits were made by editorial writers, not him, and they were made for length, not content.

Hughes said he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, which he described as a group of journalists, politicians, businessmen and diplomats with a shared interest in foreign affairs.

"We put out position papers," he said. "Pretty dull stuff unless you're into that kind of thing."

The council holds both open meetings and seminars for its members.

The council is generally supportive of the United Nations, Hughes said, but he finds it outlandish anyone would suggest the group is a front for one-world government.

Hughes said he pays no attention to the criticism, and he dismisses the John Birch Society. "I don't think they have a realistic view of the world," he said.

Holding to P.T. Barnum's philosophy, local members say there is no such thing as bad publicity.

When Provo Daily Herald columnist Eric Snider wrote a column critical of an anti-U.N. billboard on I-15 in Utah County, Utah leaders of Get US Out! were flooded with calls and e-mails from curious Utahns interested in finding out more about their positions.

And one by one, Tew said, "it helps awaken fellow Americans to the dangers of a potential police state at home while a global government is being built abroad."

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