By Rob Boston
Over the past few months, I’ve had several people call or e-mail to ask me if I know anything about a book titled The 5,000 Year Leap.
I have to admit that I was not familiar with the tome, so I looked it up. Published in 1981 by a conservative Mormon named W. Cleon Skousen, the book is just a tad unusual. It’s loaded with conspiracy theories and argues that America’s Founding Fathers modeled themselves on the biblical tribes of ancient Israel.
Despite its daffy premise, The 5,000 Year Leap has become influential in some circles of the Tea Party. Recently, George Washington University law professor Jeffery Rosen, writing in The New York Times, called Skousen “the constitutional guru of the Tea Party movement.”
This is not good.
Skousen died in 2006, but his ideas live on – and they are extreme ideas. As Rosen observed, “Starting more than 60 years ago with his first book, ‘Prophecy and Modern Times,’ he wrote several volumes about the providential view of the U.S. Constitution set out in Mormon scripture, which sees the Constitution as divinely inspired and on the verge of destruction and the Mormon Church as its salvation. Skousen saw limited government as not only an ethnic idea, rooted in the Anglo-Saxons, but also as a Christian one, embodied in the idea of unalienable rights and duties that derive from God, and he insisted that the founders’ ‘religious precepts turned out to be the heart and soul of the entire American political philosophy.’”
How did a book this odd gain such prominence? Rosen explains: “In 2009, after years of obscurity, Skousen’s ideas were unexpectedly rediscovered by Glenn Beck, who was given a copy of ‘The 5,000-Year Leap’ by a friend. As a result of Beck’s endorsement, the book became a best seller and a Tea Party favorite.”
Whenever I hear someone start talking about the alleged “biblical” basis for our government, I ask them to show me the evidence in the Constitution. Of course it isn’t there. The Founders were a diverse lot when it came to personal religious beliefs, but they were in agreement that basing governments on a particular version of faith had messed up Europe for hundreds of years. They sought a new direction of the United States: separation of church and state.
I also think it’s safe to conclude that the country isn’t based on Mormon principles, since that religion didn’t even exist when the Constitution was written.
Aside from Skousen, some Tea Party activists are promoting the works of David Barton, a notorious revisionist whose “Christian nation” version of history has been debunked by actual historians.
Of course, not everyone active in the Tea Party movement falls for this stuff or is even interested in social issues. A few weeks ago, a man called me from Idaho seeking help in persuading his fellow Tea Party activists that James Madison was not an advocate of church-state union. Some of the tea partiers in his area had been misled by Barton propaganda, and I’m glad my caller was trying to set the record straight.
Yet I’ve worked in this field long enough to know that some people will believe what they want regardless of the evidence. (“Creation science,” anyone?) But I would hope that there are at least some people of goodwill and sound mind in the Tea Party who are willing to look at the evidence and evaluate it fairly.
If they do that, they must conclude that Skousen and Barton are all wet.
P.S. Forgive me for this shameless plug: My book Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church and State gives the true story of how we got church-state separation. It’s designed for the average reader and is available on Amazon.