Monday, January 31, 2011

W. Cleon Skousen (& Ken Ivory)

This has been gnawing on me for some time. I feel a need to address my thoughts on this controversial figure in 20th Century Mormonism who is posthumously enjoying a bit of revival with his books and philosophies promoted by TV Personality Glenn Beck. As a blogger, I have the opportunity to address this however I choose. And I choose not to give a detailed historical, political or religious argument. There is some of that out there in the cyber-marketplace of ideas. Feel free to "google" (or "bing" or "yahoo" or whatever) to see what is there - and there's nothing wrong with going to his own books and documents as I have done to a limited extent. Here, I merely want to give my own thoughts and feelings acknowledging as many of my prejudices and shortcomings as I can even as there may be many I haven't yet recognized.

I am a child of the Cold War. My first exposure to Skousen was in my grandparents' living room where I noticed on their library shelves of a few, mostly church books, a large, red volume by Skousen entitled The Naked Communist. I was intrigued. I first wondered how a book with two evil things in the title could be in my grandparents' house. "Naked" perhaps being more tempting than "Communist," I took the opportunity when no one was looking and sneaked a peak. Well, there wasn't a lot of naked stuff in there, at least not from a boy's perspective of fleshy things. However, I was a serious child given to reading and even with some interest in history. So there I was reading along a lot of excitable language about how bad Communists were and how they were infiltrating our government, society and our very thoughts. Of course I already knew some of that because, well, I was a child of the Cold War.

I didn't read the whole book but I got enough of the gist of it with a slight sense of detached skepticism I must have had since birth. It seems to be deep down in my being, which remains surprisingly optimistic, but with the perspective that I can choose what I believe and I am not ruled by emotion or "group think." Obviously, some may conclude that it is my legal education that trained me this way. That is in part true as I know from practice in the law that it pays not to believe everything (or even anything) someone tells you as the truth. But I can give everybody a fair hearing and make my own choices and accept responsibility for them based on reason, evidence, life experience, common sense, intuition, inspiration, some personal prejudices and even emotion. And I certainly don't support public figures just because they happen to belong to my church (if that were a popular practice, we'd all be supporting Senator Harry Reid, no?).

Skipping ahead a few years, I found myself at Brigham Young University. I was fortunately encouraged to sign up for a freshman Book of Mormon class taught by a guy named Jeff Holland. That was wonderful! (See my previous blog about what I learned from Bro. Holland -certainly nothing political) As I was in the BYU bookstore, under the old system where you had to get your books by class section, I noticed that next to the huge pile of official CES (Church Education System) texts for freshman Book of Mormon classes, there was also a fairly large pile of other books for the class sections taught by Skousen, Treasures from the Book of Mormon and Skousen was the author. I learned to be skeptical of choosing class sections where the professor had his own books for sale. It offended my impoverished student sensibilities to think of professors making extra money off of us. But more than that concern, I skimmed through Treasures from the Book of Mormon to try and understand how it was different from the established church curriculum. There wasn’t a lot, but there were little hints here and there of Skousen’s ultra-conservative political views. And it nagged at me that he was somehow an individual exception to religious teaching carefully prepared and reviewed by those authorized by established church leaders.

I was also aware in my BYU years of Skousen's Freeman's Institute. It was a group sponsoring conservative politics and "Constitutional" education seminars. Being aware of its location in a rather seedy looking building just off the BYU Campus, I thought that I had enough studying to do without taking on additional burdens that were of questionable or at least controversial nature. And I felt uncomfortable with the apparent appropriation of "freemen," a term from the Book of Mormon (Alma 51), for political purposes. Once again, it didn't seem orthodox but somewhat manipulative. I was looking to learn from mainstream or authorized messengers.

Skousen seemed to drop out of sight as he aged or at least the popularity or interest may have waned, particularly with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and free, Western-oriented nations rising from the former Soviet Union. Skousen's politics, like those of the related John Birch Society, didn't seem so, well, I want to say relevant, but I'm not sure that ever really fit.

Yet back in those Cold War days godless communism really was a threat to freedom, world peace, and the spread of the gospel. I can imagine how heartsick our church leaders were when after the horrors of WWII, members were cut off behind the iron curtain and missionary work was not able to go forth in so much of the world. It may have been that Skousen latched on to this sentiment to further his particular political views, which while they had some LDS support even at the highest levels of church leadership, they were never officially sanctioned by the Church nor accepted by a majority of its members.

Times go by. If you haven't picked up by now, I find Glenn Beck rather annoying. I was very disturbed when I realized that Beck was reviving the books and philosophies of Skousen on his radio and TV shows. Skousen's book, The 5,000 Year Leap even made it onto national best-seller lists with a new foreword and promotion by Beck. My thought was that it was so unfortunate when in my perception (or at least hope) that time and the official LDS Church had distanced themselves away from Skousen. Yet there he was back again and prominently displayed at Deseret Book (along with Bro. Beck).  Sigh.

My last and most recent personal perspective came from a course I took on mediation presented by Utah Dispute Resolution affiliated with the Utah State Bar. In a week-long course of 40 people, you get to know the participants fairly well as we practiced our communication skills with one another. One guy seemed rather annoying from the start. He came late the first day dressed in dark suit and tie, with slicked-back, dark hair, clearly a downtown lawyer-type (or at least a "wanna-be"). Everyone else apparently had read in the course registration materials about suggested "business casual" dress. It wasn't just that he stuck out in appearance and that he had to take the last seat remaining up front, but he tended to dominate a lot of the class discussion with the kind of fake inquisitiveness and know-it-all, false modesty one usually finds with those annoying kids in grade school classes (think "Judy" in Miss Canfield's Class on "Leave it to Beaver"). This guy also spared no pains in hinting at his ostensibly exemplary family and religious life.  Everyone else in the room appeared non-denominational but most likely it was the usual Utah professional mix of LDS and others. We all immediately knew he was active LDS without him having to say it directly. At one point, maybe a little selfishly to distance myself from him as I was likely identified as LDS as well, I discretely asked the young woman sitting next to me, a biking enthusiast who worked for the Utah Courts, whether she found him as annoying as I did. Her response was, "You have no idea!"  Later in the week I was in the mens room and overheard him in conversation trying to promote The 5,000 Year Leap saying what a great insight it gave to the modern world and our Founding Fathers. Some time after the course, I noticed in the paper that this same guy had won a seat in the Utah Legislature on a Tea Party ticket after beating a moderate, incumbent Republican in their County Convention. ¡Ay, ay, ay!

Well, make your own judgments and choices. I've made mine. And they are not to join with the Skousen followers. Check it out and think it out for yourselves.

Addendum of August 16, 2011
As I identified Representative Ken Ivory below in the comments, I also realized that not many people of the younger generations really know who Judy is from Beaver's school class. Here are some photos. There must have been something that linked a connection in the recesses of my brain.
Utah State Representative Ken Ivory

Beaver's nemesis Judy Hensler

And here's a video of Judy in action:

And Ken Ivory:

Sorry, no pics or vids of Bro. Skousen. You can go look for those on your own.


  1. You ought to read "The 5,000 Year Leap." I was given a copy when it came out decades ago and, as a conservative LDS, thought I knew all that stuff. I just finally read it at Glenn Beck's suggestion (I like him) and I was astounded. I think it is the best book on the Constitution I've ever read, because it explains the REASONS it as written as it was. I think every American should read that book, in spite of their political leanings, because it is about our Constitution.

  2. Thanks for the comment, John. I have "skimmed" that book in the bookstore which was enough for me. I prefer reading the Constitution itself along with 220+ years of US History that puts it into its original and ongoing context.

  3. I’ve read “The 5000 Year Leap”, and spoken to Paul Skousen, the Authors Son, on another Bog. There we discussed why I believe in Rulers law rather than peoples law and how I’m wrong in thinking the Jacobins were brutal, Anti-Christian murderers who were far worse than the French Monarchy.

    I am a Monarchist, by the way, which means I believe in Rulers Law rather than Peoples Law and Dictatorship ruin by huge Government. I may tell you I am a Libertarian and believe in small Government, but Monarchy is Left Wing and thus Dictatorship.

    Of course that’s the bit that got my attention the most, but the rest of the book is the same. Skousen often cherry picks quotes and takes things out of context and, wouldn’t you know it, America’s Founding Fathers were exactly like him, and believed in exactly the same things he did.

    I can cite specific examples if you’d like, but I’ll stick to this: Thomas Jefferson is said in “The 5000 Year Leap” to oppose any wealth redistribution, and yet in his own words he wanted o only Tax the Rich for Port costs and tariffs so Farmers didn’t have to pay a cent of their earnings to see their society built and Children Educated.

    Skousen was simply being selective, and wrote a book in which he drapes his own ideas behind the Authority of America’s Founding Fathers and depicts all of History through a Cold War lens in which all the bad guys were simply Communists in another guise.

    You didn’t miss a Thing.

    Signed: A Reactionary.

  4. Thanks, Zarove. You have an interesting perspective. And I agree with the "cherry-picking" conclusion. My attempt is to figure out how to expose such without falling into the same, questionable technique.

  5. On reflection, I realize that my negative and critical views of my "friend" at the Mediation Course, while admittedly subjective, are about a public figure. So, there may be some public benefit in identifying him. And since we are not in England or Canada where defamation laws are much stricter(and I didn't really defame him anyway), I can identify him as Representative Ken Ivory, currently representing West Jordan (or is it South?) in the Utah Legislature. I have also blogged about him by name in other entries concerning the legislature and the Utah Tea Party.

  6. Yeah, The 5,000 Year Leap made the rounds through my extended family. I read a couple chapters, which was more than enough. Garden variety constitutional politics talking points.

    I find it sad that so many people are quick to dismiss all constitutional history between 1791 and the current day as both irrelevant and irreverent, especially given the fact that this government fundamentally re-ordered itself in 1865. For a group that prides itself on valuing the years of societal wisdom reflected in traditional moral structures and the perspective of the Founding Fathers, they certainly do have a great deal of contempt for the way America has approached the Constitution in the intervening years.

    Granted, none of us can help being selective in our assessment of influences to a point, but the Tea Party's selectiveness is rather severe. The unwillingness to give serious consideration and thought to alternative perspectives is, I think, the greatest weakness in the Tea Party and the LDS far right.

    Let me take this opportunity to say that your blog is great. I've enjoyed reading through the archives and will be a regular reader going forward.

  7. Thanks, Curt! Your blog looks interesting too. I've linked it up. Keep up the good work. We need all the thoughtful, non-partisan, moderates we can get. It's just a hard group to start a revolution with.


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