PHOENIX — A letter written by the executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference has resulted in the removal of the editorial cartoonist of the Arizona Republic from his duties as a local official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Steve Benson, a grandson of Mormon Church President Ezra Taft Benson, stirred a religious furor with his cartoon titled "The Second Coming," which appeared in the state's largest daily newspaper April 7.
The cartoon depicted former Gov. Evan Mecham, a Mormon, descending from heaven holding a volume labeled "the Book of Moron by Ev Mecham." The satirical drawing referred to Mecham's announcement that he will try to regain the governorship, from which he was ousted by the state Senate last year after being impeached by the state House.
The cartoon annoyed Max Hawkins, a Presbyterian who was director of administration for Mecham and now works for the Mecham 1990 campaign. Hawkins telephoned Arlo Nau, administrator for the Executive Round Table, a group of Protestant and Catholic church leaders, and asked the group to protest the cartoon.
Msgr. Edward J. Ryle, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, drafted a letter asserting that the cartoon "was a direct, insensitive affront to thousands of our brothers and sisters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mockery of sacred symbols . . . plays into the desire of those who promote prejudice and bigotry."
The letter was signed by 12 religious leaders, including Catholic Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien and sent to local Mormon officials. Benson was subsequently released from his duties as a member of the church's Tempe West Stake High Council, just five months after being appointed by Stake President Kent Christiansen.
In a five-page reply to the signers of the joint letter, Benson said they had misinterpreted the cartoon.
"I am a devout Mormon," he said. "Mecham is the Ayatollah of Mormonism. My cartoon wasn't attacking the church. I was attacking Mecham's misuse of the church to further his political agenda."
O'Brien said many religious leaders have been upset by previous Benson cartoons that utilized religious symbols. Ryle agreed that "religious symbols by Benson in the past were used in a manner we feel were inappropriate."