It’s not surprising that the World Congress of Families in Salt Lake City would have a particularly Mormon flavor, given that the city is the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The conference's opening session on Tuesday morning included a keynote by Mormon Apostle Russell Ballard during which he played a video of children singing a song about Mormon theology and explained how the church’s commitment to “traditional family” is grounded in its religious beliefs about eternal marriage.
WCF registration bags included a copy of the Church’s 1995 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” which argues marriage is essential to God’s eternal plan. It also promotes conservative ideas about the complementarity of the sexes, saying, “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” The proclamation states,
By divine design fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.
Also included in the registration bag was a copy of right-wing Mormon author W. Cleon Skousen’s “The 5000 Year Leap,” a 1981 book that zoomed to the top of best-seller-lists in 2009 when Glenn Beck discovered it and began gushing about it on his show. Alexander Zaitchik wrote about it for Salon:
What has Beck been pushing on his legions? “Leap,” first published in 1981, is a heavily illustrated and factually challenged attempt to explain American history through an unspoken lens of Mormon theology. As such, it is an early entry in the ongoing attempt by the religious right to rewrite history. Fundamentalists want to define the United States as a Christian nation rather than a secular republic, and recast the Founding Fathers as devout Christians guided by the Bible rather than deists inspired by French and English philosophers. “Leap” argues that the U.S. Constitution is a godly document above all else, based on natural law, and owes more to the Old and New Testaments than to the secular and radical spirit of the Enlightenment. It lists 28 fundamental beliefs — based on the sayings and writings of Moses, Jesus, Cicero, John Locke, Montesquieu and Adam Smith — that Skousen says have resulted in more God-directed progress than was achieved in the previous 5,000 years of every other civilization combined. The book reads exactly like what it was until Glenn Beck dragged it out of Mormon obscurity: a textbook full of aggressively selective quotations intended for conservative religious schools like Utah’s George Wythe University, where it has been part of the core freshman curriculum for decades (and where Beck spoke at this year’s annual fundraiser).
But more interesting than the contents of “The 5,000 Year Leap,” and more revealing for what it says about 912ers and the Glenn Beck Nation, is the book’s author. W. Cleon Skousen was not a historian so much as a player in the history of the American far right; less a scholar of the republic than a threat to it. At least, that was the judgment of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which maintained a file on Skousen for years that eventually totaled some 2,000 pages. Before he died in 2006 at the age of 92, Skousen’s own Mormon church publicly distanced itself from the foundation that Skousen founded and that has published previous editions of “The 5,000 Year Leap.”
As Beck knows, to focus solely on “The 5,000 Year Leap” is to sell the author short. When he died in 2006 at the age of 92, Skousen had authored more than a dozen books and pamphlets on the Red Menace, New World Order conspiracy, Christian child rearing, and Mormon end-times prophecy. It is a body of work that does much to explain Glenn Beck’s bizarre conspiratorial mash-up of recent months, which decries a new darkness at noon and finds strange symbols carefully coded in the retired lobby art of Rockefeller Center. It also suggests that the modern base of the Republican Party is headed to a very strange place.
Sarah Posner noted Skousen’s connections with Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch:
When the elder Skousen died in 2006, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), paid tribute to him on the Senate floor, and even included a poem he wrote about his friend. Hatch detailed how Skousen helped launch his political career, sending a letter to 8,000 "friends," urging them to support Hatch's 1976 Senate candidacy. According to a 1980 account in the New York Times by the inimitable Molly Ivins, Skousen's Freeman Institute was active in several other Republican campaigns as well, including one to unseat Sen. Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat who chaired the Church Commission that investigated intelligence abuses in the wake of Watergate.
"From that first campaign," Hatch went on in his tribute on the Senate floor, "to every day I have served in the U.S. Senate--Cleon has been there for me, through highs and lows--buoying me up, giving suggestions, discussing principles and issues, and above all else being a true, supportive friend. I can never overstate what his support has meant to me throughout my years of service." Hatch added that Skousen's writings, including The 5,000 Year Leap, "have been used by foundations, and in forums across America for many years. His writings and words leave an indelible legacy of knowledge and beliefs that have touched many people and will continue to inspire and educate generations to come."
The Hatch connection brings us full circle, as this morning’s session at the World Congress of Families ended with a, um, memorable rendition of a song written by Hatch.