My first regular issue of BYU Studies arrived this week. Nice semi-glossy paper. It's like Dialogue without the poetry. Oh, and it's correlated. Really; it says so on the inside back cover: "BYU Studies is dedicated to the correlation of revealed and discovered truth and to the conviction that the spiritual and the intellectual can be complementary and fundamentally harmonious avenues of knowledge." I don't care, I'm going to read it anyway. I'll start with short comments here about James B. Allen's review of Prince and Wright's David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, presently my featured LDS history book (sidebar, top left).
In his review, Allen calls the book "a must read for anyone interested in the history of the Church in the twentieth century." He commends the authors for their sympathetic portrayal of President McKay as well as for not soft-pedaling the various controversial episodes that marked his tenure over the Church.
Allen notes that Communism was a particular challenge, given the radically conservative line that LDS Apostle Ezra Taft Benson regularly espoused from the pulpit. McKay was opposed to Communism, but not on the terms announced by Benson. McKay relied on another LDS Apostle, Hugh B. Brown — at the other end of the right-shifted LDS political spectrum — to counter the Benson line. McKay apparently avoided making strong public statements of his own on the topic.
Given the sudden prominence of politics in LDS events of late, I found the following comment by Allen rather timely:
On other political issues, President McKay made every effort to demonstrate political neutrality, though he did not hesitate to take a stand if he thought moral issues were involved.
There's that messy political-moral distinction. Distinction? Just about every political issue has a moral dimension, so to say that LDS leaders only announce public stands on moral issues is to say they hold forth on political issues whenever they feel inclined to do so (as with the recently defeated amendment proposal). Nothing wrong with that, it's just strange to see every dose of political direction given to members prefaced by a disclaimer that the Church doesn't give political direction to its members. Of course not. Just moral direction.
Overall, Allen was very upbeat and complimentary about the book, with hardly a criticism. After having read Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling recently, however, I noted by comparison how little historical or cultural context is provided in the McKay biography. I checked out a couple of books on 20th-century American history to try and give that context as I read through the McKay biography. That should work for general themes like civil rights and Communism, but I'm not sure that approach will pick up the sort of religious themes that Bushman weaved into his cultural commentary on 19th-century Mormonism.