September 2014 Church & State | Featured

Cleon Skousen had some unusual views about the origins of the Ameri­can republic.

According to Skousen, a former FBI agent and university professor who died in 2006, America’s founders modeled the nation on the tribes of ancient Israel. He also believed that the U.S. Constitution was anchored in the scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and that only the Mormon faith could save America from destruction.

Skousen’s ideas about America’s origins don’t hold up well to even casual examination. Ancient Israel, for example, was a theocratic state based on rule by kings – a far cry from the form of government that emerged in the new American nation.

Other Skousen views are equally odd – and offensive. He parroted a neo-Confederate line on the history of the Civil War and quoted approvingly from an essay that portrayed the war as an aggressive move by the North. In the essay’s version of things, slaves labored cheerfully in the fields and were often envied by whites.

Native Americans fare little better. As Skousen tells it, they were removed from areas they had occupied for centuries as “a matter of providential justice.” He says they had little to complain about as they were relocated to lands rich in minerals.

Skousen embraced traditional gender roles, arguing that men should protect women and oversee family life. He also hawked numerous conspiracy theories about the United Nations. Skousen believed the UN was using the Soviet Union as a pawn to establish one-world government.

If all of this weren’t enough, Skou­sen has also been accused of being an anti-Semite. One of Skousen’s books bemoans America’s role in ending the Holocaust.

Although he published a lot of material, Skousen is today known mainly for two books: The 5,000 Year Leap (1981) and The Making of America (1982). Both books might have faded away into obscurity had it not been for Glenn Beck. The former Fox News host and Tea Party favorite began promoting Skousen’s work in 2007. The 5,000 Year Leap subsequently topped many bestsellers lists, and the Skousen tome became a Bible to the Tea Party.

None of this would be directly relevant to advocates of church-state separation except for one thing: The books have worked their way into at least one public school, a situation Americans United is working to remedy.

AU attorneys wrote to officials at the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools in June, asking them to investigate Heritage Academy, a Mesa-based charter school that uses Skou­sen’s books in its curriculum.

The letter, sent June 24, represents Americans United’s second attempt to stop this violation. AU attorneys wrote to the board last year, but officials at the school insisted that the books were appropriate for use. 

“These books push ‘Christian nation’ propaganda and other religious teachings on impressionable young students,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United. “They have no place in a public school curriculum.”

The letter cites specific examples from The 5,000 Year Leap and The Making of America. It points out that The 5,000 Year Leap asserts that non-believers are “irrational” and that parts of it read like a religious tract. One section of the book is titled “How Can One Know There Is a God?”

Other sections of the tome are titled “Concerning God’s Revealed Law Distinguishing Right from Wrong” and “The Nearness of God.”

            Charter schools, Americans United pointed out, are taxpayer-funded institutions. They are required to respect the separation of church and state.

            “Because the two books clearly promote and endorse specific religious views and ideologies, we ask you to remove The 5,000 Year Leap and The Making of America from Heritage Academy’s curriculum,” wrote AU to Arizona education officials. “We further request that you ensure that Heritage Academy’s history and government classes not be taught in a manner that is similar to the instruction in the two books or that otherwise promotes or endorses religion.”

            The letter urges officials to revoke Heritage Academy’s charter if it will not comply.

            Since state officials seemed reluctant to properly investigate the books, AU decided to apply a little more pressure. The group alerted Cathryn Creno, a reporter at the Phoenix-based Arizona Republic, about the situation. Creno started digging and eventually ran a front-page story about the books.

            The story quickly exploded on the web. Sites like Raw Story, Salon and Wonkette ran items about the Skou­sen tomes and AU’s protest. The pieces highlighted the racist and historically inaccurate nature of the books.

            Scholars were quick to react.

            Garrett Epps, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who has studied Skousen’s books, told the Republic, “Skousen’s account of the growth and meaning of the Constitution is quite inaccurate.”

Epps added that “any student taught from these materials in a public institution is being subjected to religious indoctrination [and] is also being crippled educationally and will be ill-prepared to take part in any serious program of instruction of American government and law.”

In light of this pressure, officials at Heritage Academy asserted that they will no longer teach the entirety of the Skousen books. AU is skeptical.

Heritage Academy is closely tied to a band of Skousen’s followers. The school’s principal, Earl Taylor Jr., serves as president of seminars and newsletters for the National Center for Constitutional Studies (NCCS), an Idaho-based group that sells Skousen’s books and promotes his ideas. On its website, the NCCS refers to Heritage Academy as “our charter high school.”

Although Heritage Academy claims to be a charter school with a focus on history, in reality it appears to be an institution formed to spread Skousen’s strange ideas – and do it with taxpayer money.

AU’s correspondence requests various public documents relating to the books and notes, “We would like to resolve this matter without litigation if possible.”

The controversy over the Mesa charter school led to a round of stories on Skousen and his beliefs. It wasn’t the first time the deceased writer has been under the media microscope.

A lengthy story by Alexander Zaitchik that ran in Salon in September of 2009 traced Skousen’s entire tangled career. According to Zaitchik, Skousen in the 1950s gave lectures for a John Birch Society group on the threat of communism. Skousen claimed to have gained inside information about communism during his time at the FBI, but sources at the Bureau said Skousen served mainly in an administrative capacity and wasn’t fighting the Reds.

As Skousen’s views became more extreme, even conservative groups sought to keep him at arm’s length. Zaitchik reports that Skousen kept a low profile throughout the 1960s but resurfaced near the end of the decade peddling “New World Order” conspiracy theories. During the Reagan years, Skousen popped up again, pushing extreme free-market ideas. By the ’90s he had lapsed into obscurity once more and would most likely have remained there had it not been for Beck.

Skousen’s family tapped Beck to write a new foreword to The 5,000 Year Leap. The NCCS began sponsoring seminars based on The Making of America, Zaitchik reported. Both books became popular in Tea Party circles.

Days after AU’s protest hit the media, Beck took to the airwaves to defend his mentor.

“That book is absolutely right,” Beck said. “That book, The 5,000 Year Leap, changed my understanding of the United States government and our founders. It is the clearest, simplest, most direct way to teach what happened and why we were founded the way we were.”

Added Beck, “Teach it to your children. Read it to them at night. Bring it to the dinner table. It will be the only chance they have to actually learn American history.”

Americans United says it’s not a problem for parents to teach Skousen’s books at home – but they have no place in a taxpayer-funded public school.

“Arizona education or Heritage Academy officials need to do the right thing and remove these books from this charter school entriely,” Luchenitser said. “Americans United intends to stay on this until they do.”