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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Pocket Constitution worthy of buzz from left and right

When Khizr Khan held up that pocket Constitution at the Democratic National Convention and taunted Donald Trump, it was a moment that reverberated with a lot of people in a lot of places.

One of those places was Malta, Idaho, population 193ish.

Malta is home to the National Center for Constitutional Studies, which produces and sells pocket Constitutions by the millions. A few of their Constitutions have shown up in prominent places – in the hands of the Bundy family, during their high-profile clashes with the federal government in Nevada and Oregon. Gavin Seim, the far-right self-promoter who live-streamed the last hours of the Bundy standoff in Oregon, likes to hold one up whether he’s aggravating the Capitol police in Olympia or posing for his Facebook photo, Constitution in one hand and pistol in the other.

It has tended to be more common for people on the right, and in the patriot movement, to lionize the Constitution. So when Khan did it, NCCS spokesman and educator Dan Sheridan said he was elated.

“I was excited when he pulled it out – it was fantastic,” Sheridan said. “I’m happy when anyone is interested in our history and the Constitution.”

Ironically, the actual pamphlet Khan held was not the NCCS version. But the moment – and the ubiquitous photographs of Khan – jolted orders at the southeastern Idaho nonprofit organization just as surely as it jolted them at the ACLU, which distributed 100,000 free ones of their own in the wake of the convention. Sales of the NCCS document – which go for $1 each, or $35 for a box of 100 – jumped over the weekend following the convention, Sheridan said.

“That Monday we were No. 2 on Amazon,” he said. “No. 1 was Harry Potter, and No. 3 was Harry Potter.”

The Khan incident was a constitutional uproar of a different kind than is usually associated with the NCCS. More often, the organization has been tied to right-wing, anti-government movements – the tea party movement fueled an increased interest in the group and its “Making of America” seminars, which are put on around the country by volunteers, according to several press accounts.

The NCCS has its roots in far-right, theocratic views of America that are associated with the Mormon writer W. Cleon Skousen. Skousen was a John Bircher and anti-communist who peddled conspiracy theories and saw creeping communism in welfare programs and civil rights. He founded the Freeman Institute in Provo, Utah, in 1971; that organization eventually became the NCCS.

The group insists that its connections to Skousen and the patriot movement are overstated. Sheridan, who works out of Chicago and teaches for Bellevue University, a Nebraska-based institution with a large online program, said the organization is run primarily by Zeldon Nelson and his son, Jeremy, who are just “farmers who want to get out the history of the nation and the Constitution.”

“It’s a personal passion,” he said.

Jeremy and Zeldon Nelson operate the center from Malta, a small town in southeastern Idaho about 30 miles from Burley. Jeremy Nelson said the primary focus in Malta is taking orders and shipping the pamphlets, which are published in Arizona. He said the group has long been separated from Skousen, and he feels it has been unfairly lumped in with the Bundy clan.

“The Skousen family has not been involved for over 30 years in any major way,” he said, adding, “For the media to bring in the Bundys so heavily was kind of inaccurate.”

Both Sheridan and Nelson emphasized the nonpartisan nature of the organization, and say they are not advancing political arguments.

On this point, it seems to me, they are protesting too much – the center clearly operates with the patriot movement’s sense of an America in crisis, of a Constitution that needs to be “rescued” by “correct principles,” and of an expressly Christian nation. It still sells “The 5,000-Year-Leap,” a book authored by Skousen that emphasizes “God’s law” as a foundation for government, argues that religion is necessary for the government of free people, and says America’s choice comes down to “Christ or chaos.”

Skousen’s name has been removed from the cover.

And yet taken on its own, the pamphlet could be divorced from all that. It simply reproduces the Constitution and amendments – “the document itself,” as Sheridan said – plus a few quotations from the founders. Some of these quotations lean on the notion of Providence or religion. Sheridan said they have considered removing them to eliminate any controversy, but emphasizes that they make up a small portion of the pamphlet. “If you don’t like those quotes, just skip ’em,” he said.

Nelson said the pamphlet has been the group’s main focus for a decade. The NCCS has distributed 16 million Constitutions in the past decade, and is now engaged in an effort to expand further, with a project called Freedom Factor.

“I always tell people the Constitution is both a conservative and liberal document,” Sheridan said. “Some on the very conservative side pretend there is nothing written after the 10th Amendment and others teach it as if the first part was never written.”

A certain slice of the political spectrum has tried to hijack the Constitution all for itself, and has taken to using it as a shorthand for an entire market basket of far-right beliefs. But Sheridan is right when he says that the Constitution should be seen as a unifying document, or at least one whose principles do not serve merely one side of a political divide.

It’s a symbol that can be proudly wielded, and argued over, by people as different as Cliven Bundy and Khizr Khan.

“It’s not just a document for people on the fringe,” he said. “It’s supposed to unite us, not divide us.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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