The subject of today's class is the Constitution, but the discussion keeps veering to various methods of sending Mexicans back where they came from.
We are in the basement of Our Savior's Way Lutheran Church in Ashburn, Va. It is Saturday, October 23, ten days before the midterm elections. A group of 50 patriots has gathered for a seminar of "The Making of America," presented by the National Center for Constitutional Studies. NCCS, headquartered in Malta, Idaho, sends speakers across the country to reveal the truth that liberal elites have hidden about the American form of government. The seminar is sponsored by four local groups--a Constitution-oriented meetup in Purcellville, Va., the Loudoun Patriots Organization, the Virginia Conservative Party, and the Loudon County Republican Women's Club.
The atmosphere reminds of me of a church pancake supper. The 50 people attending are mostly at or near retirement age, and overwhelmingly white, though there is a young Asian-American woman in killer boots, and several fashionably dressed moms with their young children in tow. By and large, these seem like people who would make wonderful neighbors--civic-minded, polite, outgoing. The conversation at the tables, however, doesn't center around the pastor's last sermon but on which Democratic politician the speaker hates most ("Obama claims to be a constitutional scholar. He knows just enough to undermine it") and the viciousness of media bias against good candidates like Christine O'Donnell ("She'd be fine elsewhere, but in Delaware she's not going to win").
But what's striking is how much these people hunger to understand America and its Constitution. "I have a master's degree," one man said to me, "and nine-tenths of this information I never got in any formal education. That's not good when you live in a country that you don't understand." There's a palpable yearning for tools to understand and change the terrible mess we're in.
Given that curiosity, it's quite striking that the seminar, which begins at 8:30 a.m., takes until 1:30 to get to the actual Constitution.
That's because we have to learn the basic truth about the Constitution: God wrote it. It comes directly from the government instituted by Moses when he led the Children of Israel out of Egypt. That system was re-instituted in England around 450 A.D. by the Anglo-Saxon rulers Hengist and Horsa. The Founding Fathers, led by Thomas Jefferson, copied the Constitution directly from the "ancient constitution" of the Anglo-Saxons.
At this point a faint alarm bell should be ringing. First of all, just for the record, Jefferson didn't take any part in writing the Constitution. He was in France, and when he read the Constitution he had mixed feelings about it. (Jefferson did actually write the words "a wall of separation between church and state," which Judge Pearce and the NCCS generally regard as a pernicious myth.)
But the louder alarm should come from maps and displays in the materials that suggest, without quite saying, that the Anglo-Saxons were in fact the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. On page 20 of our workbook, a map shows an arrow marked "Northern Tribes of Israel," running from Palestine to the Caucasus region. That arrow stops in 721 B.C.; another arrow begins at the same place at the same time: "Migration of Celts, Angli, Sacki, etc." It stretches to Northern Europe and then to England. NCCS Founder W. Cleon Skousen's big textbook, The Making of America, says that "many have thought the Yinglings, or Anglo-Saxons, included a branch of the ancient Israelites because they came from the territory of the Black Sea . . . and because they preserved the same unique institutes of government as those which were given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. But whether related or not, there is certainly irrefutable evidence of a cross-fertilization of laws and cultural values between these two peoples." (Princeton historian Sean Wilentz's recent piece on Skousen is here.)
This coy suggestion embodies what historians call the "British Israel" theory--the idea that the English nation, not the Jews of Europe, is the rightful heir of God's Covenant with Abraham. One of the major figures in the growth of this anti-Semitic ideology in the U.S. was Howard B. Rand. Rand's Anglo-Saxon Federation worked with William B. Cameron, Henry Ford's anti-Semitic ghostwriter, to link British Israelism with the American far right wing.
In The Making of America, Rand is quoted as writing, "When the time came for the United States of America to adopt a Constitution, our forefathers modeled it after the perfect Israelite system of administration."
Political scientist Michael Barkun in a recent interview called Rand "the face of British Israelism in the 1930s and 1940s." In his 1996 book, Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement, Barkun demonstrates that "British Israelism" is the foundation of what today is called Christian Identity religion--the racist and anti-Semitic right, much of which is headquartered not far from Malta, Idaho.
Lurking behind these words is the idea that the Constitution is not only a religious document, but a tribal one--written by one kind of people, white Anglo-Saxons, and enshrining their superiority. The Constitution is "ours"; immigrants, non-Christians, Jews, Presidents with funny names are here in "our" country by "our" sufferance, and the time has come to take "our" country back. None of this is quite said; but it hangs in the air. "The divisions are going to become greater and greater," Lester Pearce warns the students at Our Savior's Way. "It's not between the haves and the have-nots. It's between the haves and the entitled. Have you ever seen an interview with Obama's aunt? She says, 'they owe me.'" The one bright spot is Arizona's permissive concealed-weapon law, he explains. When the U.N. troops arrive, "they're going to have trouble."
Once the seminar begins marching through the Constitution itself, there aren't many surprises: regulatory agencies, the Federal Reserve, paper money, national parks, Social Security, Medicare, the Environmental Protection Agency, disaster aid for Katrina victims, hate crime laws--all are flatly unconstitutional.
The Bill of Rights doesn't apply to the states--that's "a complete misinterpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment." The First Amendment was enacted only to protect "the religion of America. . . . When the Founders wrote the Constitution there were no Islamics here--there were a few Jewish." As for free speech, "Can I go into a crowded theater and yell 'fire'?" (This sparks the only sign of rebellion the whole day--someone, not me, calls out, "Yes, if you're an asshole.")
The Sixteenth Amendment--allowing the income tax--was adopted more or less as a joke. The Seventeenth Amendment--direct election of Senators--must go. The Nineteenth Amendment violated states' rights by forcing them to give women the vote.
There's more God in the air than Constitution by 4:30 p.m. The organizers try to pep things up by drawing tickets for free copies of Glenn Beck's Arguing With Idiots or tee-shirts reading We are the revolutionaries your hippie friends warned you about. Some adults are having trouble staying awake. One of the children, a young boy in a football jersey, is lounging half-asleep on his mother's lap, drawing an elaborate doodle.
I am struck by the hunger that would keep a group of citizens sitting through this tedium. It's not just hatred of Democrats. These really are patriots, looking for leadership. Americans love their Constitution, whether they have read it or not; they turn to it for help and salvation.
I am a member of the American Constitution Society, a well-funded, well-intentioned network of progressive lawyers and professors. ACS offers dozens of panel discussions that rehash recondite hermeneutical debates between Ivy League law professors. An ordinary citizen who blundered into one of these events would not understand one word in ten; nor, to be frank, would an ordinary citizen be terribly welcome.
We should be in church basements more, and faculty lounges less. But we leave it to Lester Pearce and the NCCS to fill the national hunger. In the stuffy church basement, I think of words from the Gospel of Matthew: "What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?" Which of us, if a fellow American asks for ideas, will give hatred and ignorance rather than reason and fact?
At the last raffle, the boy who was doodling wins a book: Signers of the Declaration of Independence. I sneak a look at his doodle. At the top of the page he has written, "To defend and uphold." Under that he has carefully drawn an assault rifle.