A review of:


Twenty-eight Great Ideas That Are Changing The World

By W. Cleon Skousen

Center For Constitutional Studies, 1981
ISBN 0880800046
Reviewed by    Richard Packham

SUMMARY: The author is very quick to jump to unwarranted conclusions. Rather than relying on well-reasoned arguments, he cites authorities, frequently distorting his sources. He fails to prove his view of Biblical law and its relationship to the American Constitution. He fails to provide any evidence for many of his most important points. He does not reveal that the source for many of his ideas is in Mormon theology.

W. Cleon Skousen is a former professor at Brigham Young University, with a background in law and law enforcement. He has written extensively in support of the Mormon view of history, which prejudice appears to some extent in this book, although not identified as such, and which I will point out later. However, I approached Skousen's book with an attitude of being perfectly willing to hear what he had to say, and to judge it on the basis of whether it seemed to make sense or not and whether he could make a good case with appropriate evidence and argument. And I found much in his conclusions with which I can heartily agree. However, I found his method of arriving at these conclusions to be questionable, and his argumentation and logic to be faulty, at best, and downright dishonest at worst. I will detail what I mean.

I have two general comments to make at the outset. First, this is what I call a "3 x 5 card" book. That is, it was obviously put together by the author's careful collection of quotations from other authors, and his arrangement of those quotations in such a way as to make what appears to be a coherent, running argument. I found it disturbing that the quotations were limited to so few authors (emphasizing Locke, Fiske, Cicero, the founding fathers, and some prominent Mormons). This technique is commonly used by Mormons to prepare talks for their religious meetings. It thus gets carried over when they are trying to do serious research. It's an easy way to write a book. It has the defect that the author often fails to cite other authors who may disagree or have an opposing viewpoint. Second, this technique is based on a fundamental problem that Mormons have when it comes to doing serious research: Mormons are imbued from childhood with the attitude of respect for authority. If someone in authority makes a pronouncement about anything, that is to be taken as gospel truth. Therefore, by simply quoting the proper authority you can prove any point. That is the method that Skousen is using. Whenever he wants to prove anything, he quotes Cicero, or Washington, or Franklin, or Adam Smith, or anybody whose name will be recognized as an authority. I'm sorry, but I just don't accept the blind citation of authorities as a good method for proving anything.

But Skousen doesn't even cite his authorities honestly, as I will show later, and that makes his entire argument suspect.

I'll show you now some examples of Skousen's faulty arguments and dishonest quotations.

Skousen says (p.15) that slavery was illegal in Israel, citing Jeremiah 34:16. If you read that passage, you find that Jeremiah was not condemning slavery, but rather the fact that the Israelites were not following the commandment at Ex 21:2, that they should free an Israelite slave after six years (there was no such requirement to free a slave of some other race - he was yours for life). Slavery was by no means illegal in Israel, but rather a well-established and accepted custom, as shown clearly in passages such as Gen 9:25-26, 17:12, 23, 27:37, 40, Ex 12:44, 21:2-21, 21:26-32, Lev 19:20, 25:44-54, Deut 15:12ff, 28:68, Joel 3:8, Isa 14:2, among which you will find detailed rules about how to sell your daughter into slavery, how you make war captives into slaves, penalties for injuring another's slave or your own, etc. And it was still accepted and not condemned by Christians (Jesus did not speak out against it): 1 Tim 6:1-2, Tit 2:9-10, Eph 6:5, Col 3:22, 1 Cor 7:21-24, 1 Pet 2:18. I cannot believe that Skousen, as a prolific writer on Old Testament topics, is not familiar with this biblical evidence for the condoning of slavery.

Skousen claims (pp. 15-17) that Israel was organized as a representative government. He appears to be claiming that something like the American form of republican government was foreshadowed by the Israelites. Nothing could be further from the truth, as will be obvious to anyone reading the passages he cites in support of his claim. Ex 18:13-26, Num 1, and Deut 1 merely show that Moses delegated some of his authority to "judge" to the heads of tribes and their subdivisions. Notice that nowhere in those passages does it say that the people selected the leaders over them. It specifically says (Ex 18:25) "And Moses chose able men... and made them heads over the people..." This sounds a lot more like the European style of monarchy, where the ruler selects viceroys and governors to stand in his place as supreme ruler.

Skousen then cites 2 Sam 2:4, 1 Chr 29:22, 2 Chr 10:16 and Ex 19:8 in support of his claim that all leaders were elected by the people and all laws were approved by the people (as a foreshadowing of the American system). If you read these passages, you find only an account of how king David and king Solomon, who had been appointed by God, were anointed by the people as their kings. These kings were always referred to as "God's anointed" precisely because they had been selected by God, not by the people. Furthermore, they were kings, not democratically elected presidents. 2 Chr 10 relates the rebellion against Rehoboam, which merely shows that any people may try to overthrow a king not to their liking. It by no means shows that the king was selected by the people, any more than King George III was selected by the American colonists who rebelled against him. Ex 19:8 relates only that the Israelites agreed to abide by the laws Moses presented from God. This is not the same as what Skousen says, that all laws had to be approved by the people. It's like my telling my 10-year- old child, "Will you promise to keep your room clean and take out the garbage?" The child promises, because he knows that there will be hell to pay if he doesn't. It does not mean that the child had any say in the making of the rule. That's all that the Israelites were doing - they really had no choice.

Another outrageous distortion of the Bible and the Mosaic Law is his statement (p. 16) that the criminal law among the Israelites was based on reparation, rather than fine or punishment, and that the only crime requiring death was murder. I cannot believe that he can say that without blushing! How can he be so blatantly ignorant of a book on which he claims to be an authority? Death was the penalty for many offenses, some of which we would today consider very minor, but an Israelite would die for any of the following: adultery (Deut 22:22-24, Lev 20:10), non-virginity of a bride (Deut 22:20-21), harlotry in the daughter of a priest (Lev 21:9), witchcraft (Ex 22:18), blasphemy (Lev 24:16), cursing a parent or not obeying a parent (Lev 20:9, Ex 21:17, Deut 21:18-21), cursing (Lev 24:14, 23), owning a goring ox (Ex 21:29), disagreeing with a judge's decision (Deut 17:12), not "hearkening" to a priest (Deut 17:12), making a false prophecy (Deut 13:5, 18:20), teaching a different religion (Deut 18:20, 13:1-10), apostatizing from the true religion or practicing a different religion (Ex 22:20, Deut 17:2-5), being homosexual (Lev 20:13), having sex with an animal (Lev 20:15-16), approaching the Tabernacle if not a Levite (Num 1:51), doing any work on the Sabbath (Ex 35:2, 31:14-15, Num 15:32- 36).

On page 17 Skousen does what he continues to do throughout his book: he makes an assertion with absolutely no evidence to back it up. He says that if an Israelite were accused of a crime and there was any doubt as to his guilt, his punishment was left to God "in the future life." Where does he get this idea? He doesn't say. Nor does he make it clear whether "future life" means what the accused has left of his life on this earth, or in his life after death.

We haven't even started to hear about Skousen's "Principles."

The First Principle is that "Natural Law" is the only reliable basis for sound government and inter-human relationships. In his whole discussion of natural law he doesn't really make clear what he defines as "natural law," which is a term that has been used for thousands of years with dozens of different meanings. His quotations, therefore, from various authors who use the term "natural law" are meaningless unless he carefully explains just what those authors mean by the term. But he doesn't do that. If anybody says "natural law," he quotes them, and implies (incorrectly) that they mean by the term exactly the same thing that he means by it.

Skousen asserts (p. 40) that "The Law of Nature is eternal in its basic goodness." He merely asserts it; he makes no attempt to prove it. Probably because the assertion is false as soon as you try to find proof for it: there is nothing so morally neutral as nature. We get the benefit of the sun, the rain, the seasons. Those same things are also at times a curse, and can destroy us. Nature nurtures us and it destroys us, apparently without caring and without distinction.

But he goes on from that to say that Natural Law governs both Man and Gods, citing Cicero. That is completely contrary to his claim that God has created the natural law. And thus he concludes that this leads to the First (Mosaic) Commandment, to love God. That simply does not follow. He is distorting the whole thing and claiming that he has demonstrated something which he has not even begun to prove. This premise, that our basic law comes from God, is the foundation thesis of his entire book, and he fails to prove it. Therefore nothing that follows can be taken as proven.

On page 45 he mentions standards which are set up under the laws of Nature or the laws of the Creator. I thought that he was claiming that they are the same?

Then, on page 46, he lists examples of principles that are based on "Natural Law." He gives absolutely no evidence or reason to justify his assertion of why these particular things are so clearly mandated by "natural law." Among them he lists the right of habeas corpus. I believe that the right of habeas corpus is a marvelous principle of our judicial system. But that is no reason to assume that it is an absolutely inherent component of natural law (did Cicero even know the concept?). He also lists the separation of powers, checks and balances, and the right of citizens to bear arms as principles of "natural law." And yet the concept of natural law was developed long before any of these legal principles were even thought of, as Skousen himself points out, later in his book. He is claiming here much more than he has demonstrated.

In discussing his Second Principle he makes another unsupported and brazen assertion, that morality is the same as the Ten Commandments. It is very cavalier of him simply to dismiss all the very moral people in this world whose code of ethics may have some other basis than the Ten Commandments, which, when analyzed and compared with other moral codes, leaves much to be desired.

With his Fourth Principle Skousen strikes out with another completely unfounded and unproven assertion, that the government of a free people cannot be maintained without religion. His proof, such as it is, is that religious training was common in early America. That this is true is no proof that religion was an indispensable element of America's success. Skousen is stretching again, using his "quote an authority" technique, when he quotes Franklin's statement of his personal religious views. But since Franklin doesn't say quite as much as Skousen wishes, Skousen asserts (pp 77-78) that Franklin implies that the Creator has revealed a moral code to be followed. I'm very sorry, but that is thoroughly unwarranted, and borders on the dishonest.

Because this review will otherwise get much too long, I won't continue to list every point where I think Skousen has dishonestly stated some conclusion that he has not even attempted to prove, but I will give a few more of the more outrageous examples.

On page 90 Skousen asserts that the "wall" between church and state was intended to be only between the Federal government and the church, not between the state governments and the church. This is a novel idea, for which he gives no legal argument or case law.

On page 92 he makes the bald assertion that the Founders built the "whole Constitution" on Franklin's Five Truths. This is patently false. Aside from giving no evidence or argument for this assertion, we could ask Skousen to show us precisely where in the Constitution is reflected the necessity of the existence of a creator who should be worshipped, a moral code which has been revealed by a creator (or any moral code at all, for that matter), life after death, or a judgment after death. None of these are even implied in the Constitution.

To prove his point that laws of human nature can only be learned by revelation, Skousen quotes Blackstone, the great authority on British Common Law. Can we not disagree with Blackstone on this point? Because Blackstone was a great legal mind, does that mean his pronouncement on revelation is final? I hardly think so.

As Skousen gave no authority for his list of the principles of natural law, so also he gives no authority or source for his list of "inalienable rights" on p. 125, and in fact even admits that the Founders did not enumerate them. Then where does he get his list?

Skousen's Ninth Principle is another one that is snatched out of nowhere. To protect Man's rights, God has revealed certain principles of divine law. He then asserts that if God had not revealed these divine principles, our rights could not be protected. The revelation, Skousen says later, is the Ten Commandments. There are so many problems with his reasoning here that I don't quite know where to begin. First, if these principles were known since the days of Moses, down through the time of Christ and throughout all the years that Christianity dominated Europe, and faithfully followed, as best they could, by believers and their rulers, why is it only in 18th century America that God's will begins to be done? Next, where do any of the Ten Commandments appear in the American Constitution or in any of our basic laws (aside from prohibitions against murder, theft, fraud, etc., that appear in the laws of every nation)? Why doesn't Skousen give credit for the basic principles of the Ten Commandments to their true source, which is the Code of Hammurabi, which is a thousand years older (and much more sophisticated) than the Ten Commandments? How can Skousen reconcile his claim that our "sound principles of law" include a prohibition against "attributing God's power to false gods" with the solid American guarantee of freedom to worship whatever god you wish? Is Skousen advocating that the American government should enforce worship of the "true" God? In referring to the commandment about the Sabbath, Skousen says it means that we should set aside one day a week "for the study of God's Law." That is not at all what the Sabbath Law says, in any biblical version. In some places the command is simply to keep the day holy, in other places it is a command to rest, in others it is a prohibition against any work (violation punishable by death). But nowhere is it commanded to use the day to "study God's law."

Skousen has great respect (rightly so) for the Anglo-Saxons and their law. He doesn't point out, however, that they were pagans. They believed that their laws were from God, says Skousen, but he neglects to say that their god was not God as Skousen worships, but their pagan gods, Odin (Wotan), Thor, Freya, and the rest. He also glosses over the fact that the Anglo-Saxons considered it immaterial whether their laws were from the gods or simply from their distant ancestors. They were equally respected.

The Tenth Principle is the authority of the people as the ultimate sovereign. Here Skousen doesn't mention the Bible, because the Bible has no such idea. In fact, the Bible was always used by monarchs in history to justify their theory of the divine right of kings. And they were correct in so doing. The whole principle of government as fostered in the Bible is monarchy: a king, appointed by God, governs in a theocracy, the laws are handed down by God through God's appointed mouthpieces, and obedience is required of all, with disobedience punished by disasters sent from on high. The king is always referred to as God's Anointed, and he is a mediator between the people and God. That's the Bible's view of government. Where is Skousen's Tenth Principle, then, when compared to God's "revealed law"?

Another unsubstantiated assertion (p. 255) is that Bible reading in the schools contributed to moral standards, and that our (perceived) lessened morality today is because such Bible reading in the schools is forbidden. He offers no evidence in support of this claim.

Skousen outdoes himself in claiming that we have made some mistakes in our amendments to the Constitution. He mentions the amendment making Senators elected by the people rather than by the state legislatures as an example (what happened to his admiration for representative government and government by the people?). One gets the impression, from his comments on p. 282 about women's "differential equality" that perhaps he also considers it a mistake to have given women the vote. However, he carefully neglects to say this outright. One could also wonder if he believes it was a mistake to amend the Constitution to prohibit slavery, or to change the method of electing the Vice President, or to impose the federal Bill of Rights on the States?

As to the position of women, Skousen seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth. He pays lip service to women's "differential equality," but he is a devout and faithful member of the Mormon church, which places women in a distinctly secondary position in society and in the church, assigning them the sole purpose of being mothers and wives. It was also the Mormon church, you may remember, which practiced polygamy until the end of the 19th century, and still teaches among its doctrines that polygamy is the preferred family arrangement under God's revealed law. Skousen doesn't mention this. And the Bible's view of women (other than those passages cited by Skousen, which deal only with the duty of a child to respect both parents) is clearly demeaning: a wife is listed among her husband's property (Ex 20:17, Deut 5:21, after the house [!]), a divorced woman is unclean (but not a divorced man, Lev 21:7, Ezek 44:22), a woman suspected of adultery can be required to undergo an ordeal, but not a man (Num 5:11-31), wives are purchased and bargained for (e.g. 2 Sam 3:13), woman is subordinate to the man (1 Cor 11:3-11, 1 Pet 3:1-6) and should keep silent in church (1 Cor 14:34).

Skousen's 28th Principle is almost frightening: America has a "manifest destiny" to be an example and a blessing to the world. The quotations which he uses to "prove" this assertion merely indicate a belief by their authors that America is very fortunate, which no one can deny. But to conclude that Providence (or God) thereby intends us to hold ourselves out as an example is unwarranted. And it is all too easy to move from being an "example" to becoming a "tool" to effect God's intention, and at that point we have crossed the line, and we become Crusaders, Christian Soldiers, and as evil as the hordes of Mohammed or the Nazi master race.

One or two examples of Skousen's selective quoting. His quotation from Franklin on marriage, supposedly to show Franklin's high regard for marriage, is highly deceptive. The letter from which the brief quote is taken is a long and bawdy lesson on how to select a mistress. Skousen does not mention this, since if you read the whole thing, it becomes clear that Franklin's advice to marry is mere lip service to convention, and that his true feelings are much more in favor of being unattached.

Skousen's quotation from J. Reuben Clark, whom he identifies as a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, in support of America's isolationist position before World War II, takes on a different light entirely when one knows two other facts: Clark was also the second most high-ranking official in the Mormon Church at the time he made this statement (and until his death), but he and his church took a firm pro-war stand as soon as America entered the war.

Skousen does not mention the Mormon connection with other "authorities" whom he quotes, who are or were also very high- ranking Mormons: Dallin Oaks and Ezra Taft Benson. Benson rose to the number one position in the church, and Oaks almost as high. Skousen gives no hint of the Mormon influence on his thinking, which is important because of the doctrines of the Mormon church regarding America, the Constitution, and the Mormon view of its role in America's future. Mormons firmly believe that the Constitution will someday "hang by a thread," that is, be in danger of being overturned or destroyed, and at that point it will be Mormons, or the Mormon church, which will save it. At that point America will be so grateful that the government of the country will be placed in Mormon hands, and thus God's kingdom will be established on earth. Mormons believe that this almost came to pass when their founder, Joseph Smith, announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency in the 1844 election, and the only reason it did not happen was his murder that year by a mob.

Non-Mormon Americans who are familiar with Mormon beliefs and methods are justified in being very frightened of men like Skousen. He is dishonest in his scholarship and in his reasoning. He is not frank in revealing his agenda for America, which is dictated by his devout Mormonism and his faithful obedience to the leaders of his church. He can capture an audience by espousing some principles which we can all accept and by reaching conclusions which we can agree with (we need less government, honest leaders, sound money, for example), but the methods he uses in doing so trick us into believing premises which he has not established and other conclusions which he has not proven.

Added 6/14/09:   For information on Skousen's deceptions in his anti-communist activities, based on FBI files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, click here (off-site).

Added 9/17/09:   The influence of Skousen on commentator GlennBeck, with comments about Skousen's reliability: "Meet The Man Who Changed GlennBeck" (off-site).

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©  1998 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included


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