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

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010; A04

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.)

Taylor continued article by article through the Constitution and addressed each amendment, though he paused to say the nation's leaders could have stopped at the 10th Amendment. He opposes the federal income tax (16th Amendment) and thinks that women's suffrage (19th Amendment) could have been enacted individually by the states. In his view, the Founders would not have authorized programs such as federal aid to farmers, national parks, welfare programs and regulatory agencies.

Seeking 'political purity'

Since the nation's earliest years, some Americans have revered the Constitution as a bulwark against government expansion. In George Washington's Cabinet, the debate played out between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. In the mid-1960s, conservatives pushed for a return to limited government and a literal interpretation of the Constitution amid Barry Goldwater's failed run for president.

Today, reverence for the Constitution and the Founding Fathers is an important part of the militia movement. Taylor's work has been embraced, for instance, by members of Oath Keepers, a group of current and former police and military personnel who renew their oaths to the Constitution, and call themselves "guardians of the republic."

Kevin R.C. Gutzman, who co-wrote "Who Killed the Constitution?" sees the popular urge to study the Founding Fathers and the original documents as another iteration of these debates, but finds it interesting because it involves regular folks, not politicians and academics.

"In one sense, it's a heartening development, because average people are saying, 'This is my Constitution and I want to know what it says,' " said Gutzman, who teaches at Western Connecticut State University.

Michael Kimmage, a history professor at Catholic University, said the popularity of Taylor's course has continuity with the anti-Communist movement in the 1950s.

"There is an us-versus-them quality to it," he said. "It is a search for political purity that is deeply associated with the Constitution and has a timeless quality. They are saying that these are truths about politics that never change, and it's our obligation to return to these timeless truths."

But scholars say the course's emphasis is flawed. Gutzman, a Republican-turned-libertarian, found Skousen's work "filled with inaccuracies" and a religiosity that gives the free-market system a "patina of religion." Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University, called Skousen a "fake authority."

Taylor was a real estate broker when he met Skousen in 1978. Taylor began offering the class to home-schooled students near his home in Mesa, Ariz.

That led him in 1995 to create Heritage Academy, a public charter school where he teaches American history. He has a master's degree in Christian political science from Coral Ridge Baptist University in Florida, an unaccredited school.

Taylor was invited to Springfield on this Saturday by the Missouri Republican Assembly, which its members like to refer to as the conservative arm of the Republican Party. One of the hosts was Mike Moon, a hospital center employee and farmer who has made a long-shot bid for the seat of Rep. Roy Blunt (R), who is running for the Senate.

Moon, who carries a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket, brought three of his five children, who are all home-schooled. "Just the thought that their freedoms may not be the same as we have today inspired me to run," he said. He said the Constitution calls for an extremely limited federal government that does not concern itself with matters such as bank failures or health-care reform.

Nich Taylor and Schuyler Blue sat in the front row. Later, they passed out DVDs and CDs warning of a "new world order" to destroy the United States and mysteries behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that assert that the government played a role in them.

The attendees in Springfield were more than satisfied with the book they had in their hands.

"There's only one [book] better -- and that's the Bible," Pat Wilcox, a tea party supporter and grandmother of five, said as she helped collect $15 registration fees for the course and handed out workbooks.

The fee covered the cost of the workbook and also Taylor's lodging and travel expenses. He is not paid for teaching the course, he said.

He ended the class with a warning:

"Let's be ready for rough times because it's going to come," he said. "But have we not been given the promise that if we are prepared, we should not fear? I do not believe that America is destined to wind up on the ash heap of history like all other nations have.

"When it is all said and done, there will have to be good people who have answers," Taylor said. "These things have to be taught far and wide. It's right and it's good, and it's not limited to just a few uppity-ups."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company