Utah’s New Senator And The Intellectual Decline Of LDS Conservatism

In Sunday’s New York Times, legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen’s profile of newly-elected Utah Senator Mike Lee had the alarmist tone of the newly initiated: Rosen painted Lee as a “radical Constitutionalist” whose views “appear to be inspired” by the writings of Cleon Skousen, a controversial Mormon arch-conservative once little known outside of LDS circles but now made legendary by Glenn Beck.

(None of this, by the way, was news to readers of RD, where we’ve been covering the Skousen-LDS-Constitution-Tea Party phenomenon for more than a year.)

Lee hails from a connected LDS political family that includes the Udalls and from an intellectual legacy that would view Skousen more as an avuncular figure of Mormon folk thought than as a credible source on governance, but his campaign was more evocative of Skousen than his own father, Rex Lee (1935–1996). Lee the father was a University of Chicago-trained jurist, founding dean of the Brigham Young University Law School, and Solicitor General of the United States under Reagan. A conservative, to be sure. A legal advocate capable of cagey instrumental reasoning in the service of an anti-progressive agenda, as in his work against the Equal Rights Amendment. But also, in his own way, urbane and pragmatic, and capable of an irreverent wisecrack, as those of us who attended Brigham Young University during his university presidency remember.

Does Lee take Skousen seriously or was he reacting to the current political environment?

Lee may have earned his “radical Constitutionalist” label with campaign promises to reject any legislation that he “can’t justify based on the the text and original understanding of the Constitution” as well as his pledges to abolish various federal departments and agencies, repeal the healthcare bill, and support state “nullification” of federal laws. He even characterized the 70% of Utah land protected as federal wilderness as occupied territory.

Clearly, the Mike Lee for Senate campaign was designed to appeal to the deeply held feelings of LDS people who do take Skousen seriously. Lee’s campaign secured an endorsement from Cleon Skousen’s son Paul. It implicitly and explicitly appealed to Mormon folk doctrine sacralizing the US Constitution and prophesying its latter-day endangerment. And in his victory speech, Lee even hailed the “sovereign state of Utah.” Yikes.

But Lee himself should know better than to buy into the revanchist mythologizing of the Constitution and its framers espoused by Skousen and his followers.

I’m holding in my hand his father’s book A Lawyer Looks at the Constitution (1981), which was published the same year as Cleon Skousen’s 5,000 Year Leap (now a bestseller, thanks to promotion by Beck). The two make for a striking comparison.

Skousen, the former FBI man and police chief, was aggressively inventive, ideological, and amateurish in his amalgamated worship of the Founding Fathers (misremembered as devout Christians), the family, and the free market. Lee offered by contrast a modest, measured, reasoned, and footnoted account of the Constitution’s design and implementation in the branches of government.

Sadly, that modest, educated, reasoned tone has gone missing from LDS conservatism in the wake of the Skousen-Beck revival, a revival Mike Lee has both profited from and promoted.

Compare the views of Rex Lee and Mike Lee on the powers of government.

Arguing that the Constitution did not specifically establish government agencies but did “contain language” suggesting their necessity, Rex Lee in 1981 recognized there was “no consensus” among voters on which agencies deserved elimination and that thus “the more practical goal, therefore, is not to eliminate the bureaucracy, but to make it more responsive and perhaps to make its judments subject to closer judicial scrutiny.”

Speaking last year to a gathering in Draper, Utah, Mike Lee framed all government agencies as an infringement on freedom, saying, “Whenever government acts in any degree it does so at the expense of individual liberty [and] at the expense of the states.”

It’s a rigid worldview that has little space for the facts of history—like the fact that the US Constitution was, as Thurgood Marshall put it, “defective from the start” because the Founders opted to protect slavery and sacrifice the rights and liberties of thousands upon thousands of African-Americans and Native Americans to political expediency. Or the fact that concerted federal action has played a substantial role in the enforcement of the rights of women and people of color.

The Skousen-ish worldview Lee appeals to has been decried even by conservative-leaning Brigham Young University political science professors, who describe it as “lacking in substance and scholarly research” and smacking of “anti-intellectualism” and compare its adherents’ preference for “proof-texting” and “quote listing” over reasoned analysis to a predilection for “Twitter” or “video games.”

And the ascendancy of Skousen-style thinking represents a retreat from the pragmatic, compassionate, pluralistic thinking and call for careful policy making modeled by LDS Church leaders in their recent statements on matters such as immigration.

The real pity here for LDS folks is the loss of nuance, sophistication, and substance in just one generation of LDS conservatism. Mike Lee won by appealing not only to Utah voters’ unfailing preference for multi-generational Mormon power brokers, but by playing to a Beck-Skousen conservatism that would freeze the Founders and Constitution in some mythical originary moment of Anglo-Saxon Christian genius and worship them. Like idols.