Educator to the nation : George S. Benson and modern American conservatism
Maxwell, Robbie John
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This thesis examines the career of American conservative activist George S. Benson (1898-1991), who served as President of the Church of Christ–affiliated Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas (1936-1965) and rose to national prominence in the early 1940s, when he established the National Education Program. This examination provides an interpretation of the nature, origins and influence of modern U.S. conservatism. By focusing on the period from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, this work builds on a number of recent studies that have demonstrated the significant advantages to exploring modern conservatism beyond the social and political tumults of the 1960s and 1970s. Benson’s efforts also reveal some flaws in the analytical paradigm that dominates the literature on the modern right: the transition between conservatism’s marginalization in the 1930s and its recapture of the political mainstream by the late 1970s. Tempering this ‘rise of the right’ narrative by accepting both the importance and incompleteness of this resurgence provides the basis for the more nuanced approach that defines this work. Benson’s efforts to promote conservatism were defined – perhaps in equal measure – by failures, successes, and innovations. As a result, his career provides a new perspective on the boundaries of modern conservatism. Much of the work on conservatism focuses on either elites or grassroots activists. Benson operated within a space between these two groups that has rarely been explored. His career relied, almost exclusively, on the financial support of conservative businessmen, who shared his desire to effect a political re-education of the American public. To do this, Benson utilized a remarkable range of outlets for his message, which included a newspaper column, a radio broadcast, a relentless speaking schedule, and the production of approximately fifty films. He also made pioneering efforts to increase the influence of conservatism within the education system. Benson’s appeal to businessmen also resided in his construction of an innovative discourse for communicating the virtues of unfettered corporate capitalism and challenging its critics. Drawing on his own youthful experiences in Oklahoma, one of the last ‘frontier’ outposts, as well as the mythology of frontier individualism and the discourse of populism, Benson offered a folksy rebuke of ‘big government’ and embraced the corporate world as the heir to these virtues (despite the obvious contradictions). Benson’s faith ensured that religion became the second pillar of his ‘Americanism.’ His economic outlook constituted a prescient departure from Church of Christ traditions that, like those of many Southern fundamentalist and evangelical groups, harbored long-standing concerns that economic modernity constituted a destabilizing and amoral influence over a society that required order, stability and a primary dedication to non-worldly ideals. Moreover, Benson offers a new insight into the confluence of the traditionalist and libertarian wings of the right, a defining feature of the modern conservative movement. Benson’s political vision resonated most profoundly in the South and Southwest, where the heartland of modern conservatism emerged from a collision between the region’s remarkable postwar economic transformation and its preexisting religious and political culture. In a more general sense, certain themes within Benson’s crusade, notably including the power and influence of organized labor, provided key successes for the right during these years. These successes were testament to the importance of favorable circumstances, but Benson’s career was defined by the conviction that a more effective communication of conservatism would solve the right’s problems throughout the nation; one key argument of this work is that the message itself had notable limitations. These limitations, in turn, reveal a more profound ambiguity towards conservatives’ economic message within American political culture, the shortcomings of religious conservatism, and the problematic and incomplete nature of Benson’s efforts to ‘fuse’ economic and social conservatism. On the other hand, that conservatives’ ambitions were not met during this period does not suggest that Benson operated in an era of political comity; in one important respect, conservatives such as Benson helped to constrain political discourse and ensure the persistent moderation of their opponents.