The Richard D. Poll and J. Kenneth Davies Cases: Politics and Religion at BYU during the Wilkinson Years

By Bergera, Gary James | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Richard D. Poll and J. Kenneth Davies Cases: Politics and Religion at BYU during the Wilkinson Years


Bergera, Gary James, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought


My] theme this morning [is] Two Contending Forces. Those forces are known and have been designated by different terms throughout the ages. "In the beginning" they were known as Satan on the one hand, and Christ on the other. . . . In these days, they are called "domination by the state," on one hand, "personal liberty," on the other; communism on one hand, free agency on the other.

As a text I say to you, "Choose you this day whom ye will serve." (Josh. 24:15.) - David O. McKay1

During the cold war years afterWorldWar II, Mormons, including some Church leaders, increasingly infused national concerns about Communism with strong moral and religious overtones. J. Reuben Clark Jr.(1871-1961), first counselor in the First Presidency, asserted in 1949: "Our real enemies are communism and its running mate, socialism."2 Almost four years later, Church President David O. McKay (1873-1970) urged: "Every child in America [should be] taught the superiority of our way of life, of our Constitution and the sacredness of the freedom of the individual." 3 Communism, he stressed, "has as its ultimate achievement and victory the destruction of capitalism" and the "undermin[ing] of the Restored Gospel."4 "It is as much a part of the religion of American Latter-day Saints," the LDS Church News asserted, "to accept the Constitution of the United States, and defend it, as it is to believe in baptism or the resurrection."5

This emphasis among LDS authorities on the growth of Communism and what they viewed as allied economic and political evils manifested itself most dramatically in Ernest L. Wilkinson's 1951 appointment as president of Brigham Young University. A Republican Party convert and critic of the federal government, Wilkinson (1899-1978) personified the conservative economic, political, and social beliefs of his ecclesiastical superiors. He needed little encouragement, for example, when Church official Stephen L Richards (1879-1959) charged him at his inauguration to "implant in youth a deep love of country and a reverential regard for the Constitution of the United States."6 "This institution [i.e., BYU]," Wilkinson had earlier vowed in a letter to Apostle John A. Widtsoe, "is definitely committed to a philosophy which is the antithesis of that espoused by the communists. . . . More than any other school, Brigham Young University has a better basis for teaching correct principles of government."7 Wilkinson hoped to establish an exemplary institution of higher learning where a loyal, patriotic faculty would "teach 'correct' economic doctrines-doctrines which would assist in salvaging the American system of free enterprise from threatened extinction."8

Concurrent with the years of Wilkinson's presidency (1951- 71) was the emphasis nationally on routing "un-American" faculty from U.S. universities. In fact, during the height of America's involvement in Vietnam, the number of dismissals for "un-American sympathies" more than doubled.9 For Wilkinson, the possibility- however remote-of anti-American infiltration impacted his governance of the LDS school.10 Wilkinson believed that the U.S. Constitution was heaven-sanctioned and that both conservative politics and laissez-faire economics were the fruits of divine inspiration. Like the Church's officers, he endowed free-market capitalism with a religious imprimatur and measured loyalty to the Church and to BYU accordingly. For Wilkinson and others of like orientation, restored religion and conservative politics were in- separable; unorthodox political beliefs were as potentially dangerous as unorthodox doctrinal beliefs. "We are clearly in the midst of a great campaign to create a socialistic state," he stated, adding, "Liberals want to make the BYU a pulpit for all of the left-wing groups in the country. . . . How to get [a more patriotic faculty] is a real problem," he recorded.11

As he labored to secure a sufficiently patriotic faculty, Wilkinson adopted a variety of measures to promote and guarantee political and religious orthodoxy. …

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