This essay is adapted from a work in progress, tentatively titled Unhinged: Reclaiming Our Constitution From the Lunatic Right.
In October I spent a crisp Saturday in the windowless basement of a suburban Virginia church attending a seminar on "The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution." I was told the secrets the "elite" have concealed from the people: the Constitution is based on the Law of Moses; Mosaic law was brought to the West by the ancient Anglo-Saxons, who were probably the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel; the Constitution restores the fifth-century kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons.
There’s more: virtually all of modern American life and government is unconstitutional. Social Security, the Federal Reserve, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, hate crime laws—all flatly violate God’s law. State governments are not required to observe the Bill of Rights; the First Amendment establishes "The Religion of America," which is "nondenominational" Christianity.
The instructor was Lester Pearce, an Arizona judge and the brother of state senator Russell Pearce, author of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, SB 1070. (Perhaps not surprising, Lester tended to digress about how he cracks down on Mexican immigrants in court.) Pearce got rapt attention from the fifty people in the audience, although one boy near me spent his time perfecting a detailed sketch of an assault rifle.
These were earnest citizens who had come to learn about America and its Constitution. What they were being taught was poisonous rubbish.
Americans today are frightened and disoriented. In the midst of uncertainty, they are turning to the Constitution for tools to deal with crisis. The far right—the toxic coalition of Fox News talking heads, radio hosts, angry "patriot" groups and power-hungry right-wing politicians—is responding to this demand by feeding their fellow citizens mythology and lies.
The seminar I attended was organized by the National Center for Constitutional Studies, nestled securely in the metropolis of Malta, Idaho (2000 Census population 177, white population 174). The NCCS was the cold war brainchild of the late W. Cleon Skousen, a prominent John Bircher. The center and its crazed ideology have been taken up by Glenn Beck, who touts its educational programs on his TV show. Civic groups, school districts and even some city governments across the country have been persuaded to sponsor daylong seminars by the "nonpartisan" NCCS; its speakers are visiting high schools to distribute pocket copies of the Constitution. Skousen’s massive "guide" to the Constitution, The Making of America: The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, is currently No. 14 on Amazon’s "constitutional history" bestseller list—and has ranked as high as No. 4 in the past year.
Beck is not the only commentator who is espousing such extremist notions. Popular authors Thomas Woods Jr. and Kevin Gutzman, in their book Who Killed the Constitution?, argue that Brown v. Board of Education should be overturned. Not even the Constitution is safe from the "constitutionalists": Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano recently called the popular election of senators "the only part of the Constitution that is itself unconstitutional." A gathering of conservative law professors and activists at the 2010 convention of the Federalist Society, after gloating about the right-wing triumph in the off-year elections, advocated calling a constitutional convention to strip Congress of its current powers. House majority leader Eric Cantor supports a constitutional amendment to permit the state legislatures to repeal federal laws.