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A shout from the past

Three decades ago, when I was covering politics in eastern Idaho for the newspaper at Pocatello, the most conservative of the local Republicans (a few office holders, and a few additional candidates, and all or nearly all Mormon in faith – that being the other characteristic they had in common) were members of the John Birch Society and other groups toward the right edge, and cheerfully offered to share their favorite readings and authors. Probably no author was then in stronger circulation in this group, in the very conservative LDS community in the Intermountain area, than Cleon Skousen.

Skousen has been, for me, a true name from the past; I’ve not heard it for a long time, and since he died in January 2006, has seemed unlikely to resurface. But he has. The TV talker Glenn Beck (scheduled to appear at a rally in Seattle on Saturday) has led a Skousen resurgence, pushing hard on air and at appearances an old Skousen book (The 5,000 Year Leap, for which he wrote a foreword and which he called “divinely inspired”) and a number of his ideas. Skousen may have been the biggest single influence on Beck; which, once you know something about Skousen, explains a great deal. The line from the most-conservative LDS group of the 60s and 70s (the church distanced itself from Skousne by the 80s) to Beck (an LDS church convert) looks direct and clear; know one, you know the other, except that Beck has a national megaphone.

Rather than run through the whole Skousen story, which includes a scattershot law enforcement meshing into more strident and conspiratorial outlooks, we’ll suggest some reading of our own, a new piece in Salon by Alexander Zaitchik, “Meet the man who changed Glenn Beck’s life.” It’ll give you most of the background you need to understand how the the strangest public figure with a real (if misguided) following got to where he is. Call it a cautionary tale.

A piece of Zaitchick’s description: “‘Leap,’ first published in 1981, is 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 the 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.”

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