Glenn Beck, Cleon Skousen, Amerigo Vespucci, & Me

By Eric Samuelsen

IN THE PROVO Towne Centre mall, the McNaughton Fine Art Gallery sells nicely framed prints of the paintings of LDS artist Jon McNaughton, most of whose works—landscapes, windmills, light houses—suggest that he’s a Mormon answer to Thomas Kinkade. One painting, however, really stands out. Called “One Nation Under God,” it’s a painting of Jesus—who to me sort of looks like Matthew McConaughey—holding a copy of the United States Constitution. You can see it interactively here.

Behind Jesus are certain figures from the American past: George Washington’s just off Jesus’s left shoulder, James Madison off his right shoulder. In front of Jesus, are two other groups of people: sheep and goats, perhaps. On Jesus’s left hand, a shadowy Satan looms over seven iconic figures: a liberal journalist, a professor, a Supreme Court Justice, a lawyer, a politician, a Hollywood producer, and a pregnant woman, who, we’re told on the website, is contemplating terminating her pregnancy. The professor is holding a book: Darwin’s Origin of Species. The Supreme Court Justice has dropped papers which, the website explains, are the texts of certain Court decisions. They’re a strange collection of decisions. Roe v. Wade seems inevitable, but Marbury v. Madison? Jesus has a problem with judicial review?

I’ve talked this painting up a bit among friends and colleagues, and a number of them have checked it out, either online or in person. We all think it’s pretty funny: such a perfect illustration of current obsessions and anxieties of the American Right. The Hollywood producer is a particular favorite: my friends and I have made quite a game of it, guessing what recent films Jesus is specifically unhappy with: Gigli? Wild Hogs? Beverly Hills Chihuahua? Saw VI?

It’s easy to dismiss the painting as an artifact of the lunatic fringe, easy to find it comical and foolish. Like this: even if Jesus really doesn’t want us to read Darwin, or see Hollywood movies, what does that have to do with the Constitution? And anyway, are we meant to seriously regard the Constitution as inspired in a scriptural sense? Did he literally hand it down, as Moses was handed the tablets? Is there seriously a school arguing for the Constitution as scripturally inerrant? I don’t even believe in scripture as scripturally inerrant; are we heading towards Sunday School classes discussing the theological implications of, say, the three-fifths rule?

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AS I WRITE this, it’s February 2010. Barack Obama is President, Harry Reid: Senate Majority leader. The Senate has passed a health care reform bill; the House passed a similar bill earlier, but despite overwhelming majorities in both chambers, no reconciled bill seems to be forthcoming. Both bills are moderate and reasonable, compromise measures, flawed, but not without merit. But for many of my LDS brothers and sisters, ‘Obamacare’ is a catastrophe, the apocalypse, the end of everything good. I’ve felt for years that the best guide to the Mormon zeitgeist is the letters-to-the-editor page of the Deseret News. If that’s true, then Utah Mormons are collectively losing their cool. President Obama is routinely described as a socialist, a fascist, a Maoist and a communist; his administration as something dark and seductively satanic. Our nation is descending into chaos and anarchy; we’re in the Last Days; we’re just about beyond redemption.

In short, a large number of Utahns have been watching Glenn Beck, and taking him very seriously indeed. And the movement he leads and inspires seems to be growing. Call them tea partiers or 9/12ers or Palinistas, there’s a widespread anxiety on the Right that’s finding a voice. And the ideas aren’t just those of Beck. In addition to Satanic Supreme Court decisions, Darwin, and the Constitution, one other publication is prominently featured in the McNaughton painting. On Jesus’s right hand, in the Good People group, an African-American college student holds a copy of Cleon Skousen’s The Five Thousand Year Leap.

Published in 1981, and long out of print, Skousen’s book has resurfaced recently thanks to Glenn Beck. Beck has touted it as the book that “changed his life.” He wrote a preface to a new edition, published with permission of the Skousen family. It’s appeared on the New York Times best-seller list. And the ideas which animate Beck’s program come directly from Skousen. There’s a connection between Skousen and Beck, and the John Birch Society, and Evan Mecham and President Ezra Taft Benson. And one of the things they all have in common is a certain definition of America. Exceptionalist America defined not as a landmass or a political idea, but as a fundamentally religious construct, eschatological, millennial, apocalyptic, and ecstatic. By describing the past, these people’s intent is to found a movement that will define a future built on manifest destiny, overt religiosity, moralism and aggressively laissez faire capitalism.

Reading The Five Thousand Year Leap and Beck’s own book, Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government, it’s easy to see how something as ham-handed as the McNaughton painting could become popular in Mormon culture. In the Book of Mormon, the North American continent is described as particularly blessed. In the Doctrine & Covenants, the Lord tells Joseph Smith of “the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established . . . and for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood (D&C 101:77–80). And so we talk of our “divinely inspired constitution;” and it’s not a far leap to embracing paintings in which Jesus cradles the Constitution as a sort of holy relic.

But anyone who’s seriously studied American history knows that whatever happened in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, it wasn’t a revelation. Fifty-five very bright, well-read, mostly wealthy white men, many of them slave owners, met together and argued and disputed and compromised and eventually created a document none of them were really all that wild about. They weren’t for the most part, religiously inclined, and they certainly didn’t begin their deliberations with prayer, as is widely believed in Mormon culture. Quite the contrary: Madison’s journal describes how, at one particularly contentious point in their deliberations, Benjamin Franklin suggested they pause for prayer. But the necessity of bringing in a pastor to say one killed the idea. In Madison’s words, seeing a pastor enter the hall might “lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissensions within the Convention had suggested this measure.” And so no prayer was offered. Certainly the idea that one of them might say it never occurred to any of those debating. Gentlemen did not pray.

They created a political document, and it’s served us well. And we should read it, study it, think about it. Skousen’s book presents itself as a kind of Constitutional primer, describing twenty-eight fundamental Constitutional principles which we Americans have apparently forgotten. It’s meant to be a book of legal and historical analysis. But what are we to make of a book which, while discussing the history and content of the Constitution, makes no mention of the Civil War, mentions slavery only once in passing, and passes off the entire Civil Rights Movement as a communist conspiracy?

The Skousen narrative: in the two or three years before the Revolution, “a spirit of ‘sacrifice and reform’ became manifest in all thirteen colonies.” (52) “Many Americans became so impressed with their improvement in the quality of life as a result of the reform movement that they were afraid that they might lose it if they did not hurriedly separate from the corrupting influence of British manners.” (52) The British, with their “elegance, luxury and effeminacy” (53) threatened the American way of simple virtue. So Americans rose up in revolt, and established a nation that was not only uniquely virtuous, but also uniquely open to market principles in economics. As a result, we took a “five thousand year leap,” in which we managed to cram five thousand years worth of human progress into a little over two hundred years.

Virtuous Yankee farmers versus effeminate mincing British dandies: it’s a neatly metaphoric narrative, and a serviceable one. It forms the plot of the first American-written stage comedy: Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787), in which the stout-hearted American backwoodsman, Colonel Manley, outwits the British swell Billy Dimple. Eighteenth-century British propagandists were just as fond of this narrative during the Napoleonic wars, portraying sturdy British tars fighting frog-and-snail eating French fops. It’s King-men vs. freemen. And conservatives still love it: see for example Charles Krauthammer’s op-ed piece of 7 February 2010, in which that snooty elitist Barack Obama is portrayed as disdaining “ankle dwelling peasants.” But Skousen presents no evidence for any of his “history,” probably because no evidence of pre-Revolutionary moral improvement exists. And it’s difficult to see what any of this pre-Revolutionary cultural war nonsense has to do with the Constitution.

There’s another narrative at play, here, though: a narrative of paradise lost, of purity defiled. The Founders were uniquely virtuous, uniquely inspired. Just as the primitive church represented perfect Christianity, which then—degraded by sophisticates and sophists (those odious Gnostics)—fell into apostasy, so has once-pristine America fallen into an apostasy, driven there by secular humanists. One turning point was the passage of the 17th Amendment. Another was the New Deal; another, the Great Society. And Obama was elected on a platform of “change.” I think that’s why so much of Beck’s rhetoric constructs Obama as Other—a socialist, a Maoist, a smooth-talkin’ charmer. I expect that Obama’s race is also a factor, and his suspiciously Moslem sounding name. Obama’s different. And “different” suggests corruption, yet another variant on our national loss of innocence. Innovation equals apostasy.

It’s strange to me that this particular meme would find a foothold in Mormonism. Our story is less about apostasy than restoration. We don’t see early 19th-century America as a paradise—we’re more inclined to view early 19th century Americans as the guys who were trying to kill us. Joseph Smith was a fervent Jacksonian—Andy Jackson, who saw the Founders as Pharisees; the hot-tempered firebrand who kicked the money-changers out of the temple. Later, though, Joseph came to recognize the limitations of Jacksonism—the states’ rights, limited government conservatism that, to Joseph, was holding back progress. Joseph wanted an activist government, funding the building of levees on the Mississippi, even paying slave-owners to end slavery (what a colossal expansion of the powers of the federal government that would have entailed!). Specifically, Joseph wanted the federal government to force Missouri to give us our money back. Honestly, why aren’t we all progressives?

It’s possible, for example, to believe that the Constitution is an inspired document, while also recognizing its limitations, flaws, and political compromises. Elder Dallin Oaks, in a 1992 Ensign article, said “one should not expect perfection in a document that must represent a consensus.” He went on to say “reverence for the United States Constitution is so great that sometimes individuals speak as if its every word and phrase had the same standing as scripture. Personally, I have never considered it necessary to defend every line of the Constitution as scriptural. For example, I find nothing scriptural in the compromise on slavery or the minimum age or years of citizenship for congressmen, senators, or the president.” And Joseph Smith faulted the Constitution for the national government’s lack of power to intervene when the state of Missouri used its militia to expel the Latter-day Saints from their lands. Given Skousen’s attachment to states’ rights arguments, it’s worth pointing out that Joseph Smith blamed the Constitution for giving insufficient power to the federal government. Mormons know President Martin Van Buren for his famous line to Joseph Smith: “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you.” According to Skousen’s reading of the 10th Amendment, Van Buren would have been justified if he’d said “Your cause may be just, gentlemen, but this is a state matter. The federal government is powerless to intervene.”

Skousen’s method is to announce some principle, offer some context-less quotations to support it, and draw some predictably partisan conservative conclusions. For example, he says that the Founders believed that natural law should form the basis for sound government. That was certainly true for Madison, and for many of the Founders. Skousen then creates a list of examples of how natural law might influence policy. A casual reader might assume that all the examples reflect the Founding Fathers’ understanding of natural law. But the examples are without attribution, and many reflect only Skousen’s own political views. For example, when Skousen asserts that “the concept of Separation of Powers is based on Natural Law,” it’s at least an arguable position. But “Laws protecting the Family and the Institution of Marriage are based on Natural Law” asserts a right not found in the Constitution, and though the 2nd Amendment right to Bear Arms is Constitutional, it’s very unclear what the Framers meant by it, and it’s certainly not founded on any laws they would have recognized. Reading Skousen and Beck, I’m reminded of a favorite headline from the satiric online magazine, The Onion: “Area Man Passionate Defender of What He Imagines Constitution to Be.”

And of course, Skousen applauds the Founders for their religiosity and what he calls their “public morality.” I’m not sure what he means by public morality—the main example he gives is George Washington’s refusal to collect a salary for his service as General or as President. But surely Skousen knows that most of his heros—Washington, Jefferson, Madison—were slave owners. Doesn’t that have moral implications? If he means that slavery was a private matter, not involving “public morality,” it’s difficult to imagine an institution more public than slavery. And Jefferson did bring Sally Hemings with him to Europe. As for their religious views, Skousen gathers a number of quotations from a variety of Founders where they thank Divine Providence for this or that. But the Founders were public men, and pro forma declarations of conventional piety were as much a part of their political lives as they are for politicians today. In short, Skousen’s project is not to read historical documents in an effort to discover what the Founders really thought or believed; he’s looking for material to support an a priori stance.

THE WORD THAT often attaches to both Skousen and Beck is “crazy.” Beck, in fact, tends to take it and run with it on his show: “People will say I’m crazy. Well, how crazy is it that. . . .” Skousen, and now Beck, love to cite U.S. history, and love to present themselves as lovers of American history. Well, what’s history? I define it as a narrative of events from the past consistent with extant documentation. Presumably the histories taught in schools are tainted by current academia’s America-hating, socialist agenda. Is the only alternative, then, to make up a history entirely from your own imagination? Skousen found evidences of Communism behind every bush; his views were so extreme that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI found it necessary to maintain a file on Skousen for years that eventually totaled some 2,000 pages. If you’re too weirdly conservative for J. Edgar Hoover, that says something. Even in The Five Thousand Year Leap, a book which was meant to sanitize his views for broader public consumption, Skousen nods approvingly to ancient criminal codes that would provide the death penalty to homosexuals. As for Beck, I don’t watch his show much, but I can say that I’ve never watched it without seeing something bizarre: pouring ‘gasoline’ (actually water) on a guest, describing President Obama as racist, comparing him to Chairman Mao, and discussing strange symbols encoded in the retired lobby art of the Rockefeller Center. He’s convinced that an innocuous organization of community organizers, ACORN, is trying to kill him. He’s talked at some length about a fantasy in which he’d kill filmmaker Michael Moore. Just watch him sometime; all the crying, all the histrionics.

Here’s where things get embarrassing, though. Both Skousen and Beck insist that America stands primarily for two things: religious virtue and free market economics. I have recently written a play, Amerigo, that also tries to define America. And while reading Beck’s book, I had an epiphany, and a terrifically shocking one: I agreed with Glenn Beck about something! And not just something trivial, something utterly fundamental. Because in my play, I also describe America as a place defined by twin impulses: Christian, and also commercial.

In Amerigo, I take up the discovery of America as key to the definition of America. And so I examine the competing claims of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. And in their claims I also see an America uniquely religious and also uniquely capitalist. In Mormon culture, we have a stake in Columbus: 1 Nephi 13:12 describes a man who “was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it . . . wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren.” We think that refers to Columbus, not Leifr Eiriksson. And he was a religious man, albeit with religious views that were thought strange even by the peculiar standards of fifteenth-century Catholicism. But he also liked a lot of the same scriptures we Mormons like: “other sheep I have who are not of this fold,” for example. If Columbus was nuts, he was our kind of nuts.

Most Americans don’t know much about Amerigo Vespucci, but he was a successful businessman in some peculiarly modern ways, in addition to being an explorer. The New World came to be named ‘America’ after him, for example, because the German publisher Martin Waldseemuller published a popular map calling it that in 1507. I think it’s a cross-promotion—Waldseemuller had published Vespucci’s book about his journeys a few months before. But I see Vespucci not as a businessman/hero ushering in an American Great Leap Forward, but as a con man, a pimp, a hustler.

I also add a third character, and the most important character of the play, the eighteenth-century Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Sor Juana was a playwright, novelist, poet and scholar, a Christian humanist, and a woman deeply engaged with what was left of Native American culture. In her mind, the “discovery” of America meant an unprecedented human catastrophe, the wholesale destruction of peoples and cultures. In other words, the meaning of America is neither historic triumphalism nor a fundamentalist future, but tragedy.

And I tie it together with a fourth character, the most pragmatic political thinker of the Renaissance, Nicolo Machiavelli, because I think a certain amoral attachment to realpolitik is also part of what defines America. And that too has led to tragedy, to Vietnam and Iraq and the United Fruit-driven massacre Colombians call Matanza de las bananeras. (I love comedian Dave Barry’s description of the Monroe Doctrine. 1) No European country can intervene in the internal affairs of any other country in the Western Hemisphere. 2) But we can. 3) Neener neener neener.) My play is a comedy, and I’m fond of comedy, but we must ruefully admit that the narrative of America is something much closer to tragedy.

Isn’t that written into our own historical narrative as well? The story of the Book of Mormon is fundamentally tragic, is it not? Isn’t our most unique scripture’s narrative one of war and destruction and genocide? And can’t we even read that sense of tragedy into D&C 101? “I redeemed the land by the shedding of blood?”

SO WHAT DOES America mean, aside from paradox and contradiction? In America “all men are created equal,” and in America, the man who wrote those words owned slaves. We believe white men were led to America by the hand of God, and we know that their arrival set off the deadliest pandemic in the history of the world. Our greatest president spent his four years in office fighting our most horrific war. We are both Columbia and America, both the shining city on a hill and Enron and Wall Street and used car lots.

Here’s my counter-narrative, then. And it goes back a ways. It is, in any case, what I believe about America.

God exists, and His ways are inscrutable. He put us here, on this testing ground we call Earth, knowing we would be subjected to violence and disease and horror. And also beauty and love and kindness. The history of mankind is a tragic and violent one. God has had to work through very imperfect vessels. But all civilizations tend to agree on certain moral principles: that murder is wrong, that families matter, that freedom is preferred above slavery. Above all, the human capacity for reason has provided some hope, some truth, some insight. And we can learn from all human history, provided we study it honestly and with some effort at scholarly objectivity.

The Enlightenment, and the thinkers and writers of the Enlightenment influenced the ideas of such hard-headed secular humanists as Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin. The light of Christ, which is also the light of intelligence, influenced their ideas, and the great documents they created—the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence—inspired a new democratic reform, based on the ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau, yes, but also on the Islandic þing, and ancient Greek democracy and the Great Binding Law of the people gathered in the Iroquois Confederation. And America’s Founding Fathers were flawed, as all humans are flawed. Many owned slaves, and defended the practice of chattel slavery, though most knew it was deeply immoral. America was built on religion, yes, but also on genocide, on the murder of Native Americans, and the enslavement of African slaves. Like all nations, America was built on a foundation of violence, and that legacy remains part of our heritage.

But gradually, through intelligent application of reason to social problems, through trial and error, through sensible government intervention, we’ve solved at least some of our nation’s problems. Business regulation ameliorates the worst anti-social excesses of open capitalism. Progress can be seen on combating racism, on allowing women the same freedoms men have traditionally enjoyed, in allowing people trapped in desperately unhappy marriages a way to form new lives and new attachments. The elderly can live out their golden years with some measure of financial security, and help is available for the poor and sickly. The 1950’s saw the last culturally accepted expressions of openly held racism and sexism and the abuse of women and children. Quite frightening attitudes and ideas that were broadly held fifty years ago are no longer openly part of our national cultural conversation. The sixties were a time in which the human need for freedom found expression in music, art, movies, television. Even our understanding of human sexuality improved, and has blessed the world.

Today, we live in a dangerous world, but one immeasurably better, in almost every sense, for most people in the world, than ever before in world history. We live in a less violent world than any of our ancestors, and in a world where children almost all grow to maturity in health and safety. We live in a world where science has made it possible for us to know more about more of our brothers and sisters across the globe than ever before. Information technology, transportation technology, entertainment technology, and above all, the glorious revolution of medical technology has changed almost all aspects of life for the better for more people than ever before. The free exchange of goods and services in a market economy can do extraordinary good.

But not always—markets are famously amoral as the great institution of the Family is under attack economically, as we see the working poor crushed by the inhuman violence inherent in laissez faire economics. The lives of women have improved immeasurably over the last hundred years or so, in large measure because of the steadfast courage of the valiant pioneers of feminism. Nonetheless, the commodification and exploitation of women, the soul destroying falseness of pornography, threatens to undo much of the progress that’s been made. The rich get richer, and the poor have to work ever harder to keep up, often without social safety nets, and the effect on families and children can be devastating. The progress we take for granted in America isn’t as widely shared as it should be. Too many of our brothers and sisters live lives of desperation, pain and fear.

We see before us a great task, to create a millennial peace ourselves, as Christ’s spirit urges us to see all people as brothers and sisters. As Mormons, we believe in prophets, and although the Brethren are also flawed and sinful human beings, at times the Spirit speaks through them. We would do well to listen, and employ their ideas thoughtfully, the way we’d use any evidence, any ideas, as we work through problems, try to think our own way through to answers and solutions. Perhaps the world will end nonetheless in apocalyptic violence. Meanwhile, we have work to do.

America, in a word, means the possibility of Zion. Mormonism places Zion on many maps, from Jackson County, Missouri to Utah to Jerusalem to all of North America, to the meaning du jour, which would be a watered down “everywhere there are some Mormons.” But the most significant meaning comes again from Joseph Smith. I’m paraphrasing D&C 105 here: Zion comes about when we are so unified as a people that there are no poor among us.
This is the point I believe Skousen and Beck miss. The greatness of America is inextricably linked to the goodness of America—on that point, we agree. But the goodness of America is defined by our commitment to ending poverty, to caring for the poor, our commitment to tolerance, diversity and social justice. Those are the principles and values that define the Constitution, and they are the principles neither Beck nor Skousen seem ever to have noticed.

But their story, the story of America Virtuous and Triumphant is compelling, and carries a presumption of patriotism that our other, truer but grimier story does not necessarily enjoy. I don’t know how to combat Beck-ism. I’ve written a play; I’m a little worried that no one will see it who doesn’t agree with it. So come. Bring a friend; preferably an unlikely friend, someone from your ward, perhaps, someone more conservative than you. Start a conversation. That’s what good plays, and good history, should do.

Plan-B Theatre Company presents the world premiere of Eric Samuelsen’s AMERIGO
Featuring Kirt Bateman (Niccolo Machiavelli), Matthew Ivan Bennett (Amerigo Vespucci), Mark Fossen (Christopher Columbus) and Deena Marie Manzanares (Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz). Directed by Jerry Rapier.

April 8–18, 2010
Studio Theatre, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center
Downtown Salt Lake City
Tickets are $20 and available at 801-355-ARTS or planbtheatre.org/amerigo


This article originally published in Sunstone issue 158.

17 comments

  1. Carol says:

    Thank you for this profound and insightful article. I agree that “we see before us a great task, to create a millennial peace ourselves, as Christ’s spirit urges us to see all people as brothers and sisters.” President Hinckley emphasized that point, and I believe there is much we can do to create peace in our lives, homes, and communities. As we find ways to seek after and proclaim peace, we can do much to heal our broken hearts and to heal the world.

    I also agree that “Zion comes about when we are so unified as a people that there are no poor among us. This is the point I believe Skousen and Beck miss.” The contentious rhetoric that Beck spews is antithetical to the teachings of our Savior, who ministered to the poor, served the sick and the underclasses, and reached out to sinners with compassion and nonjudgment.

  2. Phil says:

    I loved this article. It definitely had to be written.

    That painting gave me pangs of frustration and worry. Mostly, I feel it is a manifestation of a growing idolatry in the church as well as in the rest of the country. Jesus’ wounded hands holding the Constitution? Pretty soon there will be a painting of Christ holding “Atlas Shrugged.” Perhaps they should paint Christ in the midst of the sinful corner dwellers ministering to them and letting them know that he understands their struggle.

    I hate Glenn Beck’s politics, but I love him as a saint. As a convert, I feel a kinship with him. I know if I had dinner at his house I would have a great time. But I don’t need anyone else quoting Cleon Skousen (the radical Mormon right’s Hugh Nibley)or Ayn Rand to me anymore.

    Maybe someone should do a painting of Nibley and Skousen fighting with medieval weapons…

  3. Shelly says:

    This article caused me to pull out some nuggets of truth, but it too has the same problems Beck and Skousen are being accused of.

    You are throwing out the baby with the bath water. You hear one or two things you don’t like with them, and then you discard everything else they have to say.

    Conservatives do the same with Obama and the current characters on his stage. They hear one or two things they don’t like and then turn off everything that follows.

    I am so sick of this “trash all that I don’t agree with” mentality. Why can’t we meet in the middle and find truth where truth is found.

    The gospel is a perfect guide and middle ground. Both parties exhibit particles of the gospel. Both have principles we should be embracing.

    We shouldn’t be arguing if the government is to take care of the poor, we should just be doing it as individuals. Once we sanction the government with powers to do such, we weaken all of us who should influenced to do so.

    Corporations are money pigs. Yes, their should be some regulations as to allowing all workers in the organization to take part in all aspects of profit, not just a wage, but to shut down corporations and cripple them is to take away the very money machine you need to pay for the welfare services of the masses. You can’t have it both ways.

    There is a middle ground. We don’t need to “kill” one side to achieve victory. Otherwise, we are just as evil as we accuse the other of being.

  4. Steve says:

    Two items: One, thanks to Mr. Samuelson for having written the article. I’ve a long time thought that I was confined to a single friend who saw things the same way as I. This article helped me to feel that, not only do I have opinions that others of my faith hold as well, but they are playwrights, historians, and thoughtful writers (assuming, of course, there are more like Mr. Samuelson). So, kudos.

    Second item: I feel like I should give a small, polite counterpoint to Shelly’s comments above mine. While Mr. Samuelson is herein showing some of his political persuasion and his own interpretation of works of some far-right conservatives, he is accurate in analyzing how and why these characters are gaining popularity. Furthermore, he isn’t ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’, nor ‘trash[ing] all that I don’t agree with’. Instead, he is citing instances and providing examples from the texts under discussion as a way of justifying his interpretation.

    I’ve read some of Skousen before, and what Samuelson here articulates seems to expand on what I had intuited myself. Some details are new to me (I hadn’t caught the omission of the Civil War). Others, not so much. Rightly calling out a revisionist history that is permeating (and possibly poisoning dialogue within) the LDS culture is hardly baby/bathwater disposal.

    I agree with you, though, Shelly, in that we should be helping with the poor as much as possible. I have decided to vote for people within the government who can do that, just as I pay tithes and offerings to the Church to do so as well. If they are corrupt and abuse that trust and fail to live up to their promises of helping others, I will vote for someone who will. Having yet another way of helping the ‘least of these’ should be embraced, not scorned or seen as a ‘weakening’.

    But, as my thoughts are still relatively nascent, perhaps there is something I’m overlooking. Any responses from all are welcome.

  5. Peter Terminello says:

    I have read shousen who uses racist innuendo and heard beck who hasn’t a clue about america as you so ably point out. american ideals are good, but too many don’t know what they are or have not read their own history. the constitution at is base is a slave driven document which certainly was not an inspired document, no worldly constitution could be. no god or son of god would endorse a document that makes many of his children 3/5’s of a human being. it takes good people to make good ideals work and the likes of glenn beck inspire division and hatred. diversity and dissent were the foundations of the usa and the essence of patriotism and free speech anchors it all and gives the right to beck et.al. to spout his narrow minded theories. my great grandfather fought and died on bunker’s hill so glenn beck can speak his vile; he has the right, but he is wrong.

  6. Shelly says:

    This is just a small response to Steve. First of all, Babylon and Zion will never mix. Never have, never will. To ask the Government to aid the poor is a recipe for disaster.

    Instead we should restrict the government in their power and ability to become all consuming in their greed for more “in the name of social justice”. We need very few services from the government. When we give them the power, we create another form of corporate greed and we open ourselves up to the imperfections of men and women who will break us at the knees with corruption.

    There is nothing wrong with coming together as a people in masses and helping others in need. There is so much good and plenty in this country, we could and WOULD handle every crisis as a people if given the chance. It would be face-to-face and life changing for all parties involved. It is the most correct of all gospel principles. We must be willing to embrace the correct path, regardless of how hard or impossible it appears.

    I hoped it would be short, but I am long winded.

  7. Davey says:

    Great article, Eric. I loved it. While I definitely lean left as well, so I’m certainly more immediately inclined to like this article, I think Eric does a good job of only really inserting his own ideology in the last couple paragraphs. I think you can certainly argue that government has been able to and could potentially continue to be able to provide for people on a broad level in a way that individual charities cannot; you can also point out the inherent difficulties of big government. The real point is, I think, that we should listen to informed opinions backed up with facts, like Eric’s article here, rather than the fiery and un(or mis)informed propagandizing of folks like Beck.

  8. Rob. Lauer says:

    Eric,

    You make some great points regarding the political evolution of Joseph Smith from a Jacksonian into what we today would call a Progressive–or at least someone who is slightly-Left-of-Center.

    Of course, LDS Mormonism (as opposed to the RLDS, LDS Strangite, and others) is much more the product of Brigham Young’s politics than of Joseph Smith’s.

    While Joseph favored the Federal government buying slaves from their owners and freeing them; while he favored the Feds forcing the states to respect the Natural Rights of Citizens–Brigham was pro-slavery, declaring it a divine instutition; he was an advocate of state’s rights.
    Joseph continually moved the Mormon’s gathering place to ares of the country that were experiencing booms in population growth (an Erie Canal boom town [Palymyra, N.Y.], the Cleveland area [Kirtland],Kansas City/Independence, the Illinois side of the Mississippi just up the river from St.Louis). On the oher hand, Brigham sought complete isolation for those Mormons who followed him–effectively transforming Utah Mormonism into America’s most successful seperatist religious community (at least for several decades).
    When I think of Brigham’s politics (as opposed to Joseph’s) it makes sense that the LDS Church would be labled the most conservative U.S. religious denomination, and that so many Utahn would embrace the wackiness of Skousen and Beck.

    I wonder why the RLDS, LDS Strangites and more of the much smaller Mormon denominations tend to be more mainstream–even more left of center? Given the fact that they share common roots and a common historical genesis with the LDS, and that they are even more of a religious minority in relation to the general population, one could assume that they would be much more reactionary.
    And yet the opposite seems to be true.
    Perhaps it’s because at least temperamentally they are more like Joseph Smith–while the LDS are more like Brigham Young.

  9. Diane says:

    Is the written play available for reading…I don’t live in Utah and unless a production makes its way to Mississippi, chances are that I won’t be able to see it. I would love to read it.

  10. michael greco says:

    great article! you think very deeply. i have never read the book of mormon d&c. but i must take your word on what mr smith said. wear i think you might be wrong is if smith says the end is when were all together then thats it. what beck is saying is the way for us to all be one is not up to the goverement. it is up to us to find the chairity in our own god given hearts to help someone in need. we dont need men or women to guide us we have god for that. you said god made the world a nasty place and a good one as well! im just trying to do my good and not let corupt men lie to me and tell me whats good for me god will do that !

  11. Mark says:

    Hey, Shelly. Nice middle ground:

    “You are throwing out the baby with the bath water. You hear one or two things you don’t like with them, and then you discard everything else they have to say.”

    “First of all, Babylon and Zion will never mix. Never have, never will. To ask the Government to aid the poor is a recipe for disaster.” Hmmm…. sounds awfully like throwing out the baby with the bath water…..

    “Why can’t we meet in the middle and find truth where truth is found.”

    This is why:

    “The gospel is a perfect guide and middle ground. Both parties exhibit particles of the gospel. Both have principles we should be embracing.”

    Gospel? If you asked someone from China, an indigenous African, or a devout Hindu, a Rabbi, a Sheik, anyone for that matter, what the gospel is, do you expect them do answer the exact way you would?

    Oh wait, they only have particles of truth, but you have it all, right? They have a lot to offer, but you have more to offer, right? – a “fullness.” Good for you.

    Trying to reach middle ground means putting our differences and beliefs aside, and focusing on what we have in common. We do not all have a concept of “the gospel” in common.

    Ghandi, Hellen Keller, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, and many others have been able to look beyond their own enthno/religiocentrism and appeal to humanity as a whole. If you fail to embrace everyone as a child of god, and keep your full love and concern reserved to those who believe the way you do, then no middle ground can exist.

    It isn’t a choice between democrat or republican, or your “true gospel” party. It’s a choice between creation or destruction, unity or division, embrace or tolerance.

  12. Shelly says:

    Mark,
    First, this is a predominately LDS site, therefore, a reference to “the gospel” is meant in principle only, not a “my truth is better than yours”. I could have used secular language to mean the same thing and carry the same absolute truth, but again, this is a different website.

    Second, there was no failing to recognize others as a child of God. My total message was that government is not the vehicle for charity.

    It is no different than any other non-human mechanism designed to “re-distribute” resources. Welfare in the U.S. still doesn’t work and we still throw more money at it. It is the face-to-face, individual contact helping others to rise above their poverty that works. Nothing else.

    Your last comment is spot on. This is not a political choice at all. It should be removed from the political machinery and left to local communities and personal efforts. In fact, if you look at groups/individuals who operate without government interference, they are very productive and successful in helping others to move forward out of poverty.

  13. Bubba says:

    I appreciate this authors efforts to reconcile his religion with historical realities as he sees it. this is a great task. At the same time, I do not see the left as the only source of truth, or the right as the only source of craziness and error.
    Beck and Skousen, despite their errors, are true to certain positive values and aspects of the American character. They seem ignorant of certain other aspects. The same can be said of this author and the left-leaning interpreters he seems to prefer.
    The author criticizes laissez-faire and free markets and their supposed destructiveness to justice and equality. Shelly, in agreement wit many on the right, responds that government involvement for the welfare of the poor is ineffective. The truth is that the more progressive of the founders supported classical laissez-faire free market economics, and that that those economics were indeed concerned with the welfare of all the citizens, and the raising of the conditions of the poor.
    Classical laissez faire included opening land to the poor and taxing away the unearned income from land and currency manipulation. It also depended on the notion of natural rights of property being largely the product of labor. Classical free enterprise opposed special privileges to corporations on these grounds (as Shelly seems rightfully aware). Classical free enterprise held that the earth was a common stock for men to labor and live on. Many on the right forgotten this aspect of classical free enterprise.
    The left has largely chosen to ameliorate poverty by direct intervention in the market in supposed acts of charity to the poor. The government role in the public welfare for classical free enterprise was to support natural rights of property- equitable land distribution, universal education, ending special economic and political privilege. Modern corporate capitalism has ignored this. Socialist critics, who criticize free enterprise, are also unaware of this. Reform by natural law legislation was not direct intervention in markets, nor was it charity, as Thomas Paine recognized, but rather justice. It should be noted by leftist Mormons that Joseph Smith’s platform included support for Jeffersonian free markets.

  14. Paumea McKay says:

    Kia Ora!(Native Maori from NZ) According to our oral historoes we are the descendents of Lehi whom we name as Angi Angi Te Tu! Tu = to stand Angi Angi + thin as in the veil of the temple! Therfore The Man stood before a thin or fine veil! Full contect! The distance between God and this man was protected by a thin veil! His son was Angi Angi Te Rangi! The veil between this man and the heavens (rangi) was thin! We as a remnant of Lehi!Believed and practiced the following! (a) God owned the land and all it’s resources! We his children are the stewards! The purpose of government was to act as Stewards of We The People: The laws they formulated was strictly related to that duty! That is they made rules and regulations to (1) convert raw materials into user friendly consumption!(b) Marshall the manpower to maccomplish the conversion! (c) work out ways and means of distributing the production (consumer goods) so we individuals would recieve our equity share! (not equal share)an 8ft giant would consume more than a four foot dwarf! Surpluses would be stored and distributed from the bottom of the granary while pouring it in from the top! In times of disaster The nececssities would be simply distributed directly to the disaster area!I believe that todays so called Capialism is an apostate version of at least my understanding of Adam Smiths Capitalism!(Wealth of Nations) Today you have Finance Capitalism which is primarily a book keeping operation! Today money in it’s varying expressions is falsley called Capital or Assets! I know during a famine Id rather have a bucketfull of wheat than a bucket full of money! When the gentiles (Pakeha or Whiteman) colonised NZ They Offered gold to we Maori for our land! (Maori In the first Place it wasn’t our land it was God’s property! The Maori says Can I eat it! No Can it keep the rain; sun wind off me like my log house! No! Can I make clothes out of it! Yes but you’ll need heaps of it! So really No to that too! Maori Where did you get it from! Pakeha It’s hard to find but Men find it in the earth! Maori It won’t do for me what the land will do for me if I stewared it properly So I wont trade and besides I might find some gold on my land which Ill use for trade too without giving away my real wealth (Capital) We practiced this Socialism(people isms) and the invading land hungry theives said we must knock the communism out of the niggers (we natives) and since we were too dumb to accept their Finance Capitalism over our God given Real Waelth (Of Nations) they used their Legislature; Courts and Armies to just Take it away! No different to what they did to the Amerindians!Under Godly (Israelite) Capitalism there is no competition period! Production is designed for use not profit! Profit is a money related word! Real Profit is when I plant one potatoe seed and it produces one or more (usually more) potatoes (seeds) The inventive (creative) genious which “Mankind was endowed increases my productive capacity and reduces my personal involment of energy and time to produce! Now Im free have more time for the pursit of happiness:
    God gives freely so his economic system also comes at no money cost! This is demonstrated as! 100 men work on the roads! Govt provides a Road Machine that does the work of 100 men in one hour whereas it would have taken one five day week for men to do the same job! The Communist/Finance Capitalist sack 99 men and gives them a tiny token dole and employes one man! Not a happy scene! Godly economics! Since Production has increased then the 100 men can still recieve their full wages pay say ten percent to hire the operate it for one day and enjoy the Pursuit of happiness for 99 days! It’s Godless to live off the backs of human slaves! Sheer intelligence to live of the backs of the Slave Machine! 1947 Engineering School of Columbia University produced a forward model that stated that The Industrial Arts of America alone (Just USA alone) Could churn out the production (convert raw materials into consumer goods) to sdatisfy the consuming requiorements of ten billion people! thats hardly 70 years ago! The world isn’t even 8 billion people today and the industrial arts (technology) in America alone has advanced even further let alone the rest of the world! So what’s the problem! Greedy Greedy selfish Gentiles! It’s up to we Mormons who have all the advantage of modern revelation to start doing it in our Corporate Body The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latterday Saints which is a huge Corporation with at least 5 million stockholders with productive capacity!We don’t have to convince America we just have to convince our Corporate Stewards (1st Pres Q 12 and @ Seventies to impliment it on a ward by ward basis! I’m not waiting for “orders’ from Utah! Under the Common Law I can do it right now! All power and authority of the Government originates with We The People! We have the Unalienable Right to issue our own letters of credit (money) so watch this space!

  15. Dustin says:

    Eric,

    I just finished reading your article. I consider myself what most people would categorize as a ‘conservative’. With that being said, I read your words with an open mind and started enjoying what I was reading over 2/3 into the text. I understand that your point was to undermine Skousen and beck and those that choose to listen and believe them but you sure spent a lot of time badmouthing them and trying to make them sound like idiots instead of just telling us how YOU feel about America.

    I don’t have much of a desire to do a point-by-point response to statements that I disagree with (or think are biased) throughout the article but do want to comment on your ending paragraph on Zion. The scriptures do state that Zion will have no poor among them but I firmly believe in necessity of the principle of agency. The reason that Satan’s plan was ousted was because he wanted us to HAVE TO be good. It’s not your job, or right, to force me to help the needy. The ‘government’ doesn’t have a right to force me to help those in need. If I help those in need it’s because I CHOOSE to. My right and responsibility to help the sick, poor, and needy comes from my God. If I choose not to the consequences will surely come but I need to be able to make the choice. Giving money to the poor might not be the best solution in every case. If I do the donating I can choose (or be led by inspiration) the best help for each person.

    Thanks,

    Dustin

  16. Abraham says:

    Eric-

    I appreciate some of your insights, and i must say that you have a talent for writing. If i was closer to your area, I would be very interested in seeing your play.

    However, I fear that your post suffers from the same problems that you protest against. I understand your qualms with Beck/Skousen (I am a Skousen myself, and have little love for Cleon’s works), but some charity is called for here. Beck/Skousen are trying to make sense out of the world, much as you are, and I don’t think they are doing it less (or more) honestly than you are.

    I used to feel much like many on the left appear to feel- that those on the right of the political spectrum (like Beck and Skousen) were mostly uneducated, easily influenced idiots, through no real fault of their own. This benign distaste I had for those more conservative than me eventually wilted under the double-barreled onslaught of life experience and the study of philosophy. While getting my philosophy degree, it was very much driven home that people usually assume their views are the ‘most correct,’ and that I was no exception. I have since adopted the life view that probably 95% of what I believe is either completely wrong or very skewed. While this has put me at a disadvantage during political or religious debates, I can say that it has enabled me to more fully appreciate my fellow human beings, even if I don’t agree with them. It seems to me that you are correct in your closing comments- life is less about being right, and more about being kind.

    Of course, I could be wrong. 🙂

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