The Bizarre Religious Myths Mormon Right-Wingers Are Pushing on Tea Partiers -- With Glenn Beck's Help
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FAIRMONT, W. Va. — One fine Saturday morning last year, around 60 mostly middle-aged conservatives trickled onto the otherwise deserted campus of Fairmont State University. Clutching notebooks and coffee cups, they looked like groggy Continuing Ed students as they took seats in a modern lecture hall on the ground floor of the school's engineering building. In a sense, they were Continuing Ed students. The room had been booked months in advance for a one-day, intro-level history and civics seminar entitled, "The Making of America."
But this was no ordinary summer school. Randall McNeely, the seminar's kindly, awkward, and heavy-set instructor, held no advanced degree and made no claims to being a scholar of any kind. He was, rather, a product of rote training in a religious and apocalyptic interpretation of American history that has roots in the racist right of the last century. His students for the day had learned about the class not in the Fairmont State summer catalog, but from the website of an obscure nonprofit run by fringe Mormons. Founded as the Freeman Institute in Provo, Utah, in 1971, the outfit now goes by the name National Center for Constitutional Studies (NCSS), and works out of a remote farmhouse in Malta, Idaho (population 177).
This humble base of operations, however, constrains neither the outfit's national ambitions nor its missionary zeal. The NCCS has been touring the country and propagating its ultraconservative Mormon message for nearly four decades. Yet its message has never been in greater demand than in 2010. Since the rise of the Tea Party circuit, the all-volunteer NCCS has experienced exploding interest from Tea Party-affiliated groups such as the 9.12 Project and the Tea Party Patriots. On any given Saturday, several of nearly 20 "Making of America" lecturers are giving seminars across the country in spaces like the rented classroom in Fairmont, with $10 tickets and NCCS book sales paying for their travel and expenses.
Along with a busier schedule, the NCCS also has a growing list of allies. In the media, it has found a powerful voice in the form of Fox News' Glenn Beck, who is a Mormon himself and has used his pulpit to advocate for NCCS books and ideas. Through Beck's sustained and energetic advocacy, once-forgotten NCCS tracts of Mormon-flavored pseudo-history such as The 5,000 Year Leap have become unlikely online bestsellers. As a result, traveling volunteer NCCS lecturers like McNeely today have no shortage of students eager to learn his version of "truth."
"In our time together, we're going to learn the truth about American history and what our government is supposed to do—and not do," said McNeely, after opening the August seminar in Fairmont with a Christian prayer and a patriotic song of his own authorship. "We're going to learn sound principles. Once we have possession of these sound principles, we can solve nearly every problem in America, the way the Founders would have liked."
As the morning progressed, it became clear that the NCCS worldview and program were based on three major pillars: understanding the divine guidance that has allowed the United States to thrive; rejecting the tyrannical, implicitly sinful, nature of the modern federal government; and preparing for a divine reckoning that will bring down America's government and possibly tear society as we know it asunder, thus allowing those with sound principles — i.e., godly NCCS graduates — to rebuild the republic along "sounder," more pious lines.
America's return to extremely limited government, as they think God intended, is destined to happen, NCCS lecturers teach, because God has already shown an interventionist role in American history. According to the NCCS, the founding of the United States was nothing short of a "miracle" in the literal sense of the word. God is watching, in other words, and he is not happy. Teaching out of the seminar's 131-page illustrated workbook, McNeely argued that the current federal government is guilty of a "usurpation of power." It is, therefore, illegitimate, though McNeely never actually uttered that word. Governmental powers should be used sparingly, he explained, limited largely to the common defense and the elimination of "debauchery and vice."