I thought I would see and hear some references to Glenn Beck at Thursday’s Tea Party here in Joplin, since many of the ideas tossed around at such gatherings seem to first originate in his strange and lucre-loving mind.
But that didn’t happen.
Then, I realized that the spirit of Glenn Beck was there all around me: in the form of a book.
That book, The 5000 Year Leap, by W. Cleon Skousen, was available for free (courtesy of the Jasper County Republican Party), with copies spread along the table holding the “scroll of grievances.”
John Putnam said the book, which he “found” in 1984, had “inspired” him.
Beck has endlessly and energetically promoted the book, which, according to Alexander Zaitchik, has become “the bible of the 9/12 movement,” “the civic initiative he pulled together…to restore America to the sense of purpose and unity it had felt the day after the towers fell.”
The popular Fox broadcaster has even claimed the book is “divinely inspired,” although Beck doesn’t specify what divine being inspired it. Presumably, it was the God of Mormonism.
So, since our local Republican Party subsidized the distribution of the book, and since our local Joplin Tea Partiers were urged to read the book—and I saw many folks walking around with fresh copies in hand—I thought I would find out more about the author, especially since the Tea Party movement is heavily influenced by Beck-like thinkers.
Who was W. Cleon Skousen?
Perusing Alexander Zaitchik’s essay on Salon.com, I discovered that Skousen shared Glenn Beck’s Mormon faith, and that he was ostensibly a “historian.” But as Zaitchik described him,
…Skousen was not a historian so much as a player in the history of the American far right; less a scholar of the republic than a threat to it. At least, that was the judgment of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which maintained a file on Skousen for years that eventually totaled some 2,000 pages. Before he died in 2006 at the age of 92, Skousen’s own Mormon church publicly distanced itself from the foundation that Skousen founded and that has published previous editions of “The 5,000 Year Leap.”
Skousen died in 2006 at the age of 92, the author of more than dozen books; a 15-year veteran of the FBI (in administration); a law school grad; a teacher at Brigham Young University; Chief of Police in Salt Lake City (where, according to Zaitchik, “he gained a reputation for cutting crime and ruthlessly enforcing Mormon morals” and, according to a 1961 article in Time, the conservative Mayor of the city said Skousen, “operated the police department like a Gestapo“); and most important for our purposes, a virulent anti-communist conspiracist, who earned a good living giving speeches to far-right gatherings.
As an anti-Communist, Skousen was affiliated with the John Birch Society, whose elaborate communist conspiracies proved too much for men of the right like William F. Buckley, who sought to sever the Birchers from “legitimate” conservatives. In those days, there were adults in the conservative movement, and when Skousen and the Birchers grew more and more extreme—accusing WW II hero Dwight Eisenhower of being a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy“—most responsible conservative groups dumped him. Buckley said such accusations were “paranoid and idiotic libels.”* Russell Kirk, an eminent conservative philosopher, viewed such people as being “disconnected from reality.” Barry Goldwater concurred.
By 1963, Skousen’s extremism was costing him. No conservative organization with any mainstream credibility wanted anything to do with him. Members of the ultraconservative American Security Council kicked him out because they felt he had “gone off the deep end.” One ASC member who shared this opinion was William C. Mott, the judge advocate general of the U.S. Navy. Mott found Skousen “money mad … totally unqualified and interested solely in furthering his own personal ends.”
Damn. That sounds a lot like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other right-wing conspiracists these days.
Zaitchik also wrote something about Skousen’s increasing popularity that again sounds eerily like our own Glenn Beck, whose “enemy” is not so much communism, but progressivism:
When Skousen’s books started popping up in the nation’s high-school classrooms, panicked school board officials wrote the FBI asking if Skousen was reliable. The Bureau’s answer was an exasperated and resounding “no.” One 1962 FBI memo notes, “During the past year or so, Skousen has affiliated himself with the extreme right-wing ‘professional communists’ who are promoting their own anticommunism for obvious financial purposes.”
By 1970, Zaitchik reports that Skousen had discovered that “liberal internationalist groups” like the Council on Foreign Relations were pushing U.S. foreign policy “toward the establishment of a world-wide collectivist society,” which would later become the New World Order, a “super-conspiracy” involving the Rockefellers and the Rothchilds and other very “powerful” people.
Eventually, the Mormon Church cut its ties with Skousen, which was just in time for his invitation to become part of the “Reagan Revolution.” Zaitchik wrote:
In 1980, Skousen was appointed to the newly founded Council for National Policy, a think tank that brought together leading religious conservatives and served as the unofficial brain trust of the new administration. At the Council, Skousen distinguished himself by becoming an early proponent of privatizing Social Security.
It was around this time that Skousen published the book that changed the life of Glenn Beck, The 5,000 Year Leap, which Zaitchik described this way:
…a heavily illustrated and factually challenged attempt to explain American history through an unspoken lens of Mormon theology. As such, it is an early entry in the ongoing attempt by the religious right to rewrite history. Fundamentalists want to define the United States as a Christian nation rather than a secular republic, and recast the Founding Fathers as devout Christians guided by the Bible rather than deists inspired by French and English philosophers. “Leap” argues that the U.S. Constitution is a godly document above all else, based on natural law, and owes more to the Old and New Testaments than to the secular and radical spirit of the Enlightenment. It lists 28 fundamental beliefs — based on the sayings and writings of Moses, Jesus, Cicero, John Locke, Montesquieu and Adam Smith — that Skousen says have resulted in more God-directed progress than was achieved in the previous 5,000 years of every other civilization combined.
So, learning all of that, I realized that Glenn Beck was in fact a part of the Joplin Tea Party, through the vehicle of W. Cleon Skousen’s book. And I realized what attracted John Putnam, the chairman of the Jasper County Republican Central Committee, to Skousen’s interpretation of American history.
Putnam is a conservative Christian, who when I first encountered him, was an elder at Christ’s Church of Joplin, and who was a believer in the Bible as the “inspired” and inerrant Word of God.
He said at the Tea Party on Thursday:
I see a real similarity between the days we live in and the founding days of this country. I realized at least in 1978 that America was on an unsustainable path. We have continued to spend more than we take in, we have continued to turn our back—to become more interested in commercialism and entertainment and luxury than we have the spiritual values that made this country great. And my family’s tired of listening to me say we can’t go on this way, but in the last year there is a whole lot of other people who have seen that the pace is accelerating and it is up to the people to restore the country…
I suspect that many in the crowd Thursday hold views similar to those of Mr. Putnam. Indeed, Jay St. Clair, the minister who uttered a rambling four-minute plea to the Almighty, began his remarks this way:
Welcome to the Tea Party! Well, this isn’t a religious gathering but I will tell you that everything about our country was founded on the faith of God and the principles that are found in his Word…
Such folks don’t want to admit that our secular country—the United States of America—was not founded on the Bible, but on Enlightenment philosophy, a philosophy that was responsible for taming the excesses of fundamentalist Christianity, and a philosophy that is under attack, either consciously or unconsciously, by some members of the Tea Party movement.
If these people were to get what they wanted—a return to “God-directed” governance—then the Tea Partiers would no longer be mere objects of liberal scorn.
They would be forces to fear.
*In 1962, Buckley published “a 5,000-word excoriation” of Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, which included the following:
How can the John Birch Society be an effective political instrument while it is led by a man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points . . . so far removed from common sense? That dilemma weighs on conservatives across America. . . . The underlying problem is whether conservatives can continue to acquiesce quietly in a rendition of the causes of the decline of the Republic and the entire Western world which is false, and, besides that, crucially different in practical emphasis from their own.
Few conservatives today are willing to say about Glenn Beck and other conspiracists that their views are “so far removed from common sense.”