I had first heard of Cleon Skousen on my mission. He had given a talk about the Atonement to a group of missionaries in Texas, and while it was entertaining, it wasn’t exactly doctrinally sound. (It is amazing what doctrines can be created with a fusion of D&C 93 and the Journal of Discourses.) Skousen’s book, The Five Thousand Year Leap, is largely the same way.
In November I went to a forum at BYU entitled “Glenn Beck, Cleon Skousen and LDS Conservatism,” and was exposed to some of Bro. Skousen’s political writings such as The Leap and The Naked Communist. The leaders of the discussion were three professors at BYU, along with Bro. Skousen’s son, Paul Skousen. (A review of the forum can be found here.) Overall, the professors saw a great similarity between the two LDS conservatives. Professor Richard Davis said, “It’s easy for me to see why (Beck) would have picked up on Cleon Skousen’s book and found it inspiring,” Davis said. “It fit in with his own performance.” The professors agree with some of the points made by the two authors, but overall find the arguments lacking. Professor Ralph Hanckock said, “I find in both a trace of anti-intellectualism. My interest is to help connect a certain LDS conservative impulse or mood with a more deeply grounded intellectual conservatism. We can’t enter the political field with the argument that all the bad, but smart people think X, but we good dumb people think Y.” I think it is interesting that although one of the professors was conservative, he still saw this to be true. The two authors, but more notably Beck, seem to be invoking anything but open-mindedness. (The title of Beck’s newest book was Arguing With Idiots.) This kind of closed mindedness and unwillingness to at least listen to opposing arguments leads to an unhealthy environment where the free exchange of ideas as proposed by Mill is cheapened. This is readily seen at BYU. In one of my recent classes, in which only a couple of students opposed the death penalty, the class was stunned to learn that there are actually good and sound arguments against the death penalty. With Beck especially there is a rabid fear and a hate that is unwilling to compromise. (However, I don’t really blame Beck. He is good at what he does, and that is being an entertainer. He is making millions a year, and recently signed a 50 million dollar radio contract. The danger comes when people actually take him seriously.)
With that being said, Skousen has a noble pursuit in his book, which is to boil down the basic things that the Founding Fathers got right. Because they got these things right, he further argues, America has been able to make 5,000 years worth of advancements in only 200 years. He came up with 28 principles, but really all that is left is a watered down and incomplete textbook. I believe that he also got several points essentially wrong. Here are a few.
1. Skousen claims that the Founders studied the record of the ancient Israelites for good examples of a government ruled by the people. However, he provides no evidence that those usually considered the Founders studied the government of the Israelites or took it as an example. Additionally, I’m not sure that we should be taking the Israelites form of government for a model…it kind of didn’t really work for them for 40 long years.
2. He contends that there are five points which should be taught in schools, and that these points were advocated by Franklin. 1) There exists a Creator who made all things, and mankind should recognize and worship him. 2) The Creator has revealed a moral code of behavior for happy living which distinguishes right from wrong. 3) The Creator holds mankind responsible for the way they treat each other. 4) All mankind live beyond this life. 5) In the next life mankind are judged for their conduct in this one. While I won’t contend that Franklin was wrong, it is interesting that he believed that these principles should be taught in school. It seems to be at odds with the free exercise clause, and would present problems in society today, where there are all kinds of religions that have differing beliefs about judgment and the after life. This is an example that shows that the Founders were not one homogenous group of people the way that Skousen suggests, but rather different people with varying religious and political ideologies.
3. He writes, “Newcomers to any nation are not considered first class citizens immediately. Human nature does not allow it. In some countries ‘outsiders’ are still treated with hostility after they have resided in those countries for three or four hundred years. In the United States, immigrants or outsiders can become insiders much more rapidly. Nevertheless, transition is painful.” It feels as if Skousen is speaking to a first grader, trying to convince them of how good America is to foreigners. In other parts of the same chapter, he seemingly contends that we make America a great place to live for foreigners. Although I do agree that there are worse places that have taken far longer to assimilate or end slavery, we shouldn’t exactly brag about our goodness to foreigners. For starters there was this thing called slavery where we kind of made it hard for black people to assimilate. And we also put people on reservations. Does Skousen really expect the solution to be so black and white, to expect a people to just suck it up and become a part of the culture? With the Native Americans, we have created an incredibly diverse and complex problem. They are not assimilated into our culture, and it is hard to blame that completely on them. There exists a third world country within our own borders. Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans are still underprivileged in many important aspects. Blacks for example have a much lower income, and are far more likely to face the death penalty. I see no ‘rapid’ transition here.
4. Skousen argues that the Founders strongly believed that the original Constitution will never be obsolete, because human nature does not change. Again, he writes as if the Founders unanimously believed a single principle. But Thomas Jefferson, for one, believed that the Constitution should be rewritten every 19 or 20 years to keep ‘the dead from ruling over the living.’ While I do believe that the Founders were inspired in a marvelous way, the situation is not nearly as watered down as Skousen paints it. The views of the Founders are often complex and varied.
5. Advocating a free market, he quotes Hamilton as saying, “Inequality would exist as long as liberty existed.” He further quotes an economist, saying, “Only nations committed to the principle of private property have risen above penury and produced science, art, and literature. There is no experience to show that any other social system could provide mankind with any of the achievements of civilization.” Even though there are differences between socialism and the United Order practiced by others, the above quotes seem to take an ardent stand against both. In the book of Acts we read that the believers were, “of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common” (Acts 4.32, NKJV). It is quite bold of Dr. Skousen to include the above quotes, considering he probably believed in the Bible and the society it describes seemed to be pretty successful.
In pointing out Dr. Skousen’s misses, I need to note that he does make several good and interesting points of which I agree with. But these are scattered and poorly organized. In the end his book largely fails… it is just a splattering of his research with some hits and a lot of misses.