Mike Lee and the Constitution

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Jeffrey Rosen recently wrote in the New York Times Magazine about the “radical constitutionalism” of Tea Partiers. Exhibit A was Senator-elect Mike Lee of Utah. “[O]n the campaign trail, especially during his heated primary battle with the three-term Republican incumbent Bob Bennett, Lee offered glimpses of a truly radical vision of the U.S. Constitution, one that sees the document as divinely inspired and views much of what the federal government currently does as unconstitutional,” wrote Rosen. He further wrote that Lee “embraced ‘nullification,’ the idea that states have the right — and indeed the duty — to disregard federal laws, like the new health-care-reform bill, that they say are unconstitutional.” Lee’s “constitutional vision” is “genuinely eccentric and extreme.” 

Rosen introduces his next topic with a little hedging: “Many of the positions Lee outlined on the campaign trail appear to be inspired by the constitutional guru of the Tea Party movement, W. Cleon Skousen, whose 1981 book, ‘The 5,000-Year Leap,’ argued that the founding fathers rejected collectivist ‘European’ philosophies and instead derived their divinely inspired principles of limited government from fifth-century Anglo-Saxon chieftains, who in turn modeled themselves on the Biblical tribes of ancient Israel.” Skousen, says Rosen, “wrote several volumes about the providential view of the U.S. Constitution set out in Mormon scripture, which sees the Constitution as divinely inspired and on the verge of destruction and the Mormon Church as its salvation.”

Reading the article, I wondered whether Lee’s description of his views and influences would match Rosen’s characterizations. So I called Senator-elect Lee to find out. We spoke this afternoon. He says he finds the argument for nullification interesting, but said only that states should speak out against unconstitutional federal laws.

He does not believe that the Constitution is “divinely inspired” in the sense of “canonical scripture” but says that he does believe that “it was written by wise men who I believe were led by divine providence in a particular time and place to do some great things.” Asked whether he sees the Mormon church as the “salvation” of the Constitution, he answers, “No. No. The American people are the guardians of the Constitution and anyone who cares about the rule of law–those are the people who will be the salvation of the Constitution.”

Asked whether he thinks states should be encouraged to require religious instruction in public schools–another view Rosen attributes to Skousen, and thus implicitly attributes to Lee–the senator-elect says, “Heavens no.”

Lee’s verdict on the Times Magazine article as a whole: “That was beyond the pale, even in the realm of disingenuous, irresponsible journalism. It is rare that I read an article and walk away with so little respect for a writer I haven’t met and have never talked to.”

Update: I forgot to add one more comment that Senator-elect Lee made. “My strong opinions on the constitution were formed many, many years before I ever read a book by Cleon Skousen.”