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For years, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been striving to make a difference in the world, and they’ve discovered that teaming up with the United Nations makes a world of difference.
The growing partnership allows this relatively small global faith of 16.5 million members to bring food, shelter and immunizations to countries across the planet.
In late February, the church gave $20 million to UNICEF for COVID-19 inoculations in a program aimed at distributing 2 billion vaccines by year’s end. At the faith’s General Conference in October, apostle D. Todd Christofferson even talked approvingly about the U.N.’s 2030 goals for “sustainable development.”
All these seem laudable goals, but not all church members are happy about the U.N. ties. Indeed, to many of them, the global body is a communist front, or worse, a symbol of the biblical Antichrist.
The relationship looms as a betrayal of the vision of past Latter-day Saint prophets, particularly Ezra Taft Benson, a strong U.N. critic who died in 1994.
Sermons decrying that organization ended with Benson, acknowledges Brian Mecham, who founded LDS Freedom Forum and Latter-day Conservative about 15 years ago, yet the United Nations today “continues to further that same agenda which [those] former church leaders opposed.”
It’s just been “repackaged and rebranded,” the Lehi resident says, “to appear more benevolent.”
Mecham describes himself as “admittedly a non-mainstream, unorthodox, heretical Mormon (... more in agreement with the foundation established by [church founder] Joseph Smith, compared to the modern LDS Church teachings).” He says he’s not a Republican, Democrat or Libertarian but rather “politically independent... a Constitutionalist, juris naturalist (having a belief in natural law).”
He has no idea how many Latter-day Saints today share his disdain of the U.N. but says in an interview that there are “hundreds of active users on his Freedom Forum and the majority of them have that concern.”
And they are hardly restrained in their views.
One commenter posted an article, which she says offers “a very good, detailed, history of UNICEF, proving it is pro-abortion, anti-life, and its main goal today is to sterilize populations.”
She adds: “Shame on the [LDS] Church leaders who are ignorant of these facts and who promote this satanic organization. There is literally no excuse.”
For his part, Mecham says, any support of the United Nations “would be contrary to the principles of freedom and the proper role of government.”
Starting in 2013, Latter-day Saint Charities, the church’s humanitarian arm, joined hands with UNICEF, focusing especially on immunizing children against measles, rubella, maternal and neonatal tetanus, polio, diarrhea, pneumonia and yellow fever. They also team up on emergency response and the education and development needs of refugees.
Beyond that, the church has had high-ranking leaders speak at U.N-related meetings such as a Geneva gathering on worldwide education. The G20 Interfaith Forum has featured speeches by apostles D. Todd Christofferson, Gerrit W. Gong and David A. Bednar the past three years. Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the general presidency of the women’s Relief Society and president of Latter-day Saint Charities, has addressed the group every year since 2018.
Last month, Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé sent a video thank-you to UNICEF for its worldwide battle against COVID-19 and its long record of service.
“You have done so much,” he said, “to care for children and their families and help meet their basic needs and fulfill their potential.”
In addition, the faith traditionally has called members to serve as U.N. government relations representatives.
Though the church’s mission is primarily a religious one, that comes with the mandate, leaders believe, to feed, clothe and shelter those in need — which is why it has linked up with a network of global helpers including UNICEF.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints joins with diverse organizations around the world to solve some of the greatest and most challenging issues,” says church spokesperson Doug Andersen. “Solving complex problems such as childhood hunger, racial inequality, and disease requires open communication, sharing resources, and building common ground with organizations and individuals who may share some, but perhaps not all, of our perspectives.”
Such organizations often have “existing relationships and resources in an area,” he says, “that allow us to do the most good with our contributions.”
Latter-day Saint leaders have invited “people everywhere” to “reach out, in a spirit of openness and cooperation,” Andersen says, “to bring hope into countries which otherwise may be unable to meet their most basic needs.”
Collaborating with U.N. programs is a valuable step for the Utah-based faith — and vice versa, says Karen Hall, a Latter-day Saint in South Carolina who is an expert in the international rule of law.
The United Nations provides a “platform for every nation, no matter how small or how many challenges they face,” Hall says. “It is trusted in ways that other entities aren’t. It is a force for good.”
It and the church have “lofty goals,” she says, “shared by everyone who has strong moral values, especially to help the poor and needy.”
Those who describe themselves as “liberty-minded Latter-day Saints” like Mecham still don’t like it.
“Charity and welfare is not a proper role of government. And the United States government, being many trillion dollars in debt, is in no position to be involved in caring for the world’s poor,” Mecham says. “There are many individuals, churches and private organizations involved in those efforts. They do that of their own free will rather than by force of government.”
Some wariness about the United Nations now includes its worldwide distribution of vaccinations, in which the church has participated, Mecham says. “I’d rather get COVID, then get vaccinated.”
For him and others, these anti-U.N. sentiments come down to the same issue: individual freedom.
Building on Benson
Most scholars track Mormon opposition to the United Nations to its post-World War II founding.
J. Reuben Clark, then a member of the church’s governing First Presidency, was among the first to condemn the U.N. as a “Communist front group,” Matthew Harris writes in his book, “Watchman on the Tower: Ezra Taft Benson and the Making of the Mormon Right.”
Clark believed, according to Harris, that the U.S participation with it “was eroding American sovereignty and putting American GIs into unjust wars.”
[Matthew Harris discusses Ezra Taft Benson’s influence on Latter-day Saint politics in a “Mormon Land” podcast.]
But Matthew Bowman, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, traces threads of the distrust back even further to Woodrow Wilson’s proposals of an international League of Nations after World War I.
Some Latter-day Saint leaders, including then-President Heber J. Grant, supported the notion, but many other church leaders — like most in the Republican Party at the time — opposed the league and “invoked their faith,” Bowman says, arguing that “scriptures taught that its goals for peace and international cooperation should not be sought by bureaucracy but by changing of human hearts and conversion to Christianity.”
These critics warned that the league would not only be ineffective, the historian says, “but that it would also make the human situation worse.”
They shared that view with Protestant fundamentalists, who were “mapping out the events leading up to the Second Coming,” Bowman says, “becoming convinced that a single figure called the Antichrist would organize the world with false promises of peace.”
They saw the United Nations, he says, “as a potentially satanic tool.”
Benson, a long-standing supporter of the right-wing John Birch Society, melded these ideas with language from Mormon literature, the historian says, in particular the idea of “secret combinations” from the faith’s foundational text, the Book of Mormon.
In 1963, the future prophet urged Americans to “have no further blind devotion to the communist-dominated United Nations.”
The concept “woven into all of the present-day proposals for world government (The U.N. foremost among these) is one of unlimited governmental power,” Benson wrote in 1968, “to impose by force a monolithic set of values and conduct on all groups and individuals whether they like it or not.”
Members like Mecham have built their views of the international organization on these kinds of pronouncements.
By the time he became church president in 1985, though, the fiery Benson, who had served as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s agriculture secretary, had softened his rhetoric and rarely spoke against the global body.
That didn’t stop supporters from continuing to attack the U.N.
When Protestant fundamentalists mobilized politically in the 1970s and ’80s, many of them “imported their suspicion into what became the modern conservative movement,” Bowman says, “and both strains of critique of the United Nations became more and more a feature of modern conservatism in America — first, that it was inefficient and could not do the real work of reform because that depended upon individual hearts and minds and, second, that it was a dangerous forerunner of the Apocalypse.”
In the early 1990s, Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, wrote a book blasting the United Nations as part of the “new world order,” he says, which became a “buzzword among the more apocalyptic conservatives who saw the United Nations as actively malignant and a tool of Satan.”
Those views are shared among some Latter-day Saints, Bowman says, “who have found conversation partners among various factions of evangelical conservatives.”
Utah’s ‘U.N.-free zone’
On July 4, 2001, the La Verkin City Council declared the southern Utah community “a U.N.-free zone” in a mostly symbolic gesture.
“The U.N. wants the Virgin River,” Mayor Jay Willard of nearby Virgin said at the time. “The global elite are using the United Nations and organizations that were set up to help the environment to lock up private property. It’s time to fight back.”
Back then, the Birch Society’s clout had mostly withered but was still thriving in some rural communities.
The next year, La Verkin’s council repealed the ordinance after most of its supporters were voted out of office.
Antipathy to the United Nations, however, has never disappeared.
“I wish I knew how many Latter-day Saints currently oppose the U.N., but I don’t,” Harris writes in an email. “I suspect that it’s on the decline because most Latter-day Saints left the Birch Society after the Cold War ended in 1989 and anti-U.N. tropes were big with the Birchers.”
Extremist Latter-day Saints, he says, simply “transferred their allegiances to other conspiracy theories.”
Principles over personalities
Defending Utah, co-founded by radio host and author Ben McClintock, has many posts and videos alleging the evils of the global body, including “United Nations 2019 Conference: Spreading Tyranny in Utah.”
“It would be difficult to accurately ascertain how many people within the state of Utah share our views,” Defending Utah writes in a message. “However, we have tens of thousands of individuals in the state who follow us through our different social media platforms, read our articles and watch our videos.”
They do not all share the same political party, says Defending Utah. “We are Constitutional originalists. Since elected officials from both parties violate the Constitution, we stick to our motto of ‘Think Right & Wrong, Not Right & Left.’ Along those lines, it’s not about who says something, but what was said.”
When asked about if it thought LDS Church leaders are blinded to the dangers of the U.N, Defending Utah says “it is impossible to speculate on the opinions or motivations of people we have never met. But clearly not all church leaders have the same opinions.”
Defending Utah went on to say: “Though many of us are Latter-day Saints, as an organization, we’ve stuck to correct principles which have led us to being on the opposite side of some of the church’s statements on public issues from [Ammon] Bundy’s efforts to defend the rights of the Hammond family to legislation attacking property rights under the guise of being compassionate, to government violating the Constitution during a so-called pandemic.”
Being “true to principles,” Defending Utah says, “is more important than being true to personalities.”
No matter how many Latter-day Saints oppose their church’s involvement in the U.N. and other international bodies, though, their views are not likely to alter the faith’s associations.
The church welcomes “the opportunity to seek common ground, where we can partner with global organizations,” Andersen says, “and increase our influence in benefiting God’s children, wherever they may live in the world.”