Conservative class on Founding Fathers' answers to current woes gains popularity

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010

SPRINGFIELD, MO. -- Earl Taylor has spent 31 years teaching that "the Founding Fathers have answers to nearly every problem we have in America today." Only in recent months has he found so many eager students.

On a recent Saturday, he held the rapt attention of 70 of them with a narrative of U.S. history. The eight-hour seminar held at a roadside inn here was one of half a dozen "Making of America" sessions in cities nationwide that day, all sponsored by a little-known conservative organization based in Idaho.

Two years ago, Taylor, who is president of the National Center for Constitutional Studies, made about 35 trips to speak to small church groups and political gatherings. This year, he has received so many requests that he enlisted 15 volunteer instructors, who are on pace to hold more than 180 sessions reaching thousands of people.

"We're trying to flood the nation . . . and it's happening," said Taylor, 63, a charter school principal.

If a "tea party" event is where the disaffected go to protest the present, his classes are where they go to ponder the past. Participants include members of "9.12" groups inspired by conservative commentator Glenn Beck, Republicans, home-school groups and people affiliated with militias.

Here in Springfield, the day's students sipped coffee and chewed on peppermints while seated at folding banquet-hall tables. They included a lawyer, a farmer, a local politician and a project manager for a construction company. Except for one man, all of them were white. Most were middle-aged, and there was nary a Democrat to be found.

Taylor walked them through a 131-page, fill-in-the-blank workbook that frames the nation's founding in a religious context and portrays the size and scope of the modern federal government as a form of tyranny.

His course became popular in part because of an emotional endorsement last year from Beck, who has praised the late W. Cleon Skousen, who wrote the course's curriculum. He was a far-right anti-Communist Mormon fundamentalist and professor of religious studies at Brigham Young University whose historical work has been criticized by academics as ill-conceived and inaccurate. (The group Institute on the Constitution in Pasadena, Md., offers similar courses on a smaller scale.)

The urgency, Taylor said, comes from concern about the slow and steady creep of government into Americans' lives. "Not that it started by any means with the election of Barack Obama. I guess it's more out in the open. When he makes a statement that we are going to fundamentally transform the United States, what does that mean?" Taylor asked. "We're learning what it means, and it scares people."

Secular saints

Taylor is a grandfatherly figure with glasses and a plume of gray hair. His session here had the feel of a church Bible study. He spoke of the Founders as divinely guided secular saints and said a return to the principles they wrote in 1787 is the only change the nation needs. "The Founders were on a divine mission or manifest destiny," Taylor told his class. "The Founders had answers."

Taylor spun stories of Benjamin Franklin as a praying man who wept after signing the Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson as a conflicted soul who wished to abolish slavery but because of his benevolence was reluctant to free his own slaves. "If you've been to Monticello and you see how Jefferson cared for them, they didn't want to leave," Taylor told the class.

He avoided what he called "negative stuff" about the Founders' "supposed immorality." (In recent years, for instance, books about Jefferson have focused on research asserting that he fathered children of Sally Hemings, a slave owned by the nation's third president.)

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