Search most photos of the armed occupiers who took over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, and you’re liable to see a few common features. Beards, sure. Stiff-brimmed cowboy hats, too. And, in many shirt pockets, a tiny bound volume.
It’s the Constitution. But not the way most people read it.
It includes all 4,543 words inscribed by the Founding Fathers, with 18th century spelling and punctuation preserved, but the pocket Constitution held aloft by Ammon Bundy at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge contains some additional notations courtesy of an anti-communist conspiracy theorist named W. Cleon Skousen.
FOR THE RECORD:
Oregon standoff: In the Jan. 23 Section A, an article about an annotated version of the U.S. Constitution carried by some of the Oregon wildlife refuge occupiers was accompanied by an incorrect photo. The photo showed a pocket version of the Constitution from the U.S. Government Bookstore, not the version with notes from conspiracy theorist W. Cleon Skouson. —
Skousen, who once accused President Dwight D. Eisenhower of being a Soviet agent and whom Time magazine once labeled an “exemplar of the right-wing ultras,” pairs the original Constitutional text with quotes from Founding Fathers about the necessity of religion in governance.
Its message: The Founding Fathers intended the United States to be a Christian nation, beholden to a Christian god, and never intended the federal government to have any power over its people.
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” it quotes John Adams in an addendum. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Constitutional scholars say some quotations are either deliberate alterations or taken out of context. The Adams quote, taken in its entirety from a 1798 letter to the Militia of Massachusetts, is an instruction to abide by morality, and seems to use “religion” in place of good deeds and words.
Other quotations center on the need for people to take power for themselves, and not let government lay too heavy a hand on their affairs.
It’s a message that rings clear to Cliven Bundy, who had a copy of the booklet during his 2014 standoff with federal agents on his Nevada ranch over unpaid grazing fees. His sons Ammon and Ryan brought it to the Oregon wildlife refuge.
“It’s something I’ve always shared with everybody and I carry it with me all the time,” Cliven Bundy told The Times on Thursday. “That’s where I get most of my information from. What we’re trying to do is teach the true principles of the proper form of government.”
Bundy gets his pocket Constitutions from a friend in Utah named Bert Smith, who buys 1 million at a time, storing them in a warehouse between distributions to Mormon groups, schools and soldiers overseas.
Smith said that he was a longtime friend of Skousen, a Canadian-born onetime FBI agent who died in 2006, and that the booklet was Skousen’s life work. Skousen founded the organization that prints and distributes the pocket Constitution, the Idaho-based National Center for Constitutional Studies.
Zeldon Nelson, the National Center on Constitutional Studies president, said the group has 15 million pocket Constitutions in circulation and just translated it to Spanish. The center believes God accords all equality, and reiterates Skousen’s view that government should not play a role in efforts to ensure equal rights to all people.
The Bundys and their supporters refer to the Constitution constantly: during speeches, of course, but also over bowls of soup at lunch or at campfires at night.
They have invoked its privileges to justify their occupation, especially Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17, called the Enclave Clause, which they argue means the federal government shall own no land.
Mainstream constitutional scholars dismiss such an analysis, but it has reemerged as a favored tool of the American lands movement, which seeks to transfer federal land to states, counties and private entities.
The booklet, which features George Washington on its cover, sells for 35 cents each. Those looking for low-cost Constitutions include school districts in Florida, which were forced to apologize in 2013 after they included the pocket Constitution among their civics materials without reviewing the added material.
In death, Skousen became a favorite of conservative Glenn Beck, who helped elevate Skousen’s profile on his CNN show and later his website. Beck wrote the foreword to Skousen’s book, “The 5,000 Year Leap,” another effort to recast American history as that of a Christian nation.
Specifically, his work espouses a brand of anti-communist Mormonism which perceives a threat to the U.S. by forces outside the government and within. With Beck’s foreword and publicity, a 2009 edition of “The 5,000 Year Leap” topped the list of Amazon best sellers in its first week.
“No Constitutional authority exists for the federal government to participate in charity or welfare,” he once wrote.
Despite its age — Skousen began researching the first volume of the booklet in the 1960s — the document is finding its footing in the constellation of anti-government, pro-religion conservatives who support states rights and “original intent,” the idea that the Constitution, like the manual of a car, is a set of explicit instructions that detail how to operate a republic without need for interpretation or modernization.
His thoughts on original intent were among his more mainstream views, but it was his views on communism and fears of a New World Order that drew attention and, sometimes, ridicule.
Skousen lived in controversy from his beginnings in public life. Leaving the FBI after 15 years in 1951, Skousen took a post at Brigham Young University, then was appointed chief of the scandal-ridden Salt Lake City Police Department. He was fired after four years, in 1960, contemporary accounts claim, because he was too zealous in eradicating card games in private clubs.
After the police department, Skousen turned to what would be his calling: Writing books and founding nonprofit organizations. His first book, “The Naked Communist,” was published in 1958 and claimed a geopolitical plot was underfoot to transform the U.S. into an arm of the Soviet Union. GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson has spoken glowingly of the book.
“It’s really quite amazing,” Carson told Bloomberg. “You would think it was written last year.”
Skousen became a favorite of the ultra-right John Birch Society, which added him to its speakers list, even as some members of mainstream conservatism during the height of the U.S. Rep. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare thought Skousen’s views were too extreme.
The popularity of Skousen’s views, and his prominence in American public life, have waxed and waned with the political tides. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 and fears of nuclear war with the USSR were on the rise, Skousen became a charter member of the Council for National Policy, a conservative think tank that paired wealthy donors with the idea men of the Reagan Revolution.
His views were increasingly viewed as out-of-touch with mainstream American values, particularly when the Cold War ended, and he was fated to die in relative obscurity. A Stanford law professor assessing his legal writings compared them unfavorably to “a warm pitcher of spit.”
Now, a decade after his death, Skousen’s life’s work is getting its moment in the lights.