Today is day four of a weeklong history camp run by Constitutional Champions, a national nonprofit that was founded in part with seed money from Glenn Beck. Patriot Camp's stated mission is to teach kids the "truth about our country's founding," in the way, I guess, you might send kids to math camp to learn the truth about the Pythagorean theorem. Today also happens to be June 28, the day the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of Obamacare, a plan that has parted the country more severely than Wednesday Addams's hair.
"Lord," Miss Deb [Camp director Deborah Seneca] begins, "please be with our Supreme Court today as they make a decision that will have a huge impact on us all. Guide them to realize what's right for this country and our children. Amen."
For the past two summers, Miss Deb has held Patriot Camp in this park, which dates from before the Revolutionary War and is framed on its southern end by an eighteenth-century Presbyterian church and a historic cemetery where a handful of Civil War soldiers are buried. Just one turn off the town's main drag deposits you here into this quiet lush pocket, so fluorescent green it looks Photoshopped and big enough for its own area code. Miss Deb has invited me here to see what camp is all about, and I figured at the very least I'd get a civics refresher, considering what I remember of the Constitution wouldn't fill the exaggerated loop of the P in "We the People."
But my real reason for coming is to see how a camp inspired by Beck's right-wing sermonizing manages to school heartland America on history, culture, religion, values, and three-legged racing, all while maintaining its avowed, and legally required, apolitical stance. Everyone I spoke with as I planned my trip to Paxtang stressed that Patriot Camp was definitely, absolutely, exclusively about history. Though I was simultaneously warned that if— if—a splash of politics seeped into the bug juice, Constitutional Champions wasn't responsible. The nonprofit simply sells the blueprinty camp guidebook—available online for just $14.99, a price even the thrifty Ben Franklin could get behind—and it's up to each camp to teach it however they see fit. Late one morning in Paxtang, while we cheer on a tense game of tug-of-war between the "Confederate" and "Union" kids, Miss Deb makes her pitch. "Do you ever play the game where somebody says something in your ear, and then you whisper it to the next person, and so on, until it just comes out as nonsense?" she asks, squinting at the gob of Union bodies lying defeated in the grass. "We go back to the Constitution—the actual document itself—so we know our kids are getting it right."
After the prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and "The Star-Spangled Banner," the camp day begins. The kids are divided roughly into decuplets and cycled through three hours of scheduled activities with the efficiency of a 1950s Ford factory line: "Our Judeo-Christian Heritage," "Redistribution of Wealth" (see box). At around 11 A.M., I join a group taking a break for cold cuts and "prayer pretzels." I'd always thought of pretzels as nondenominational, so I ask one of the snack-table volunteers, a sweet redheaded senior who's made up like Tammy Faye Bakker, to explain. The camp's pretzels "are made in the image of a child praying," she tells me. "It's the way they did it in the olden days."
Tammy Faye and I kibitz for a few minutes by the coolers. She tells me she's from nearby Hershey, home of a pair of Hershey factories, land of chocolate-perfumed air. She loves volunteering because she loves kids, and as if to illustrate her point, she tells me about one of the camp sessions yesterday, when an instructor asked, "How do you get rid of a president who's doing a bad job?" Here Tammy Faye giggles and half covers her mouth like she's about to share the perfect kids-say-the-darnedest-things punch line. "A couple of them shouted out, 'Assassination!' "
If I'm being completely honest, I have to admit I wasn't sold on the idea that this would be a politically neutral history camp. In fact, I envisioned a kind of "Take back our country from the black guy" ethos permeating the place, the same attitude that dotted the 9/12 March on Washington, a movement that likewise billed itself as nonpartisan. This is partly because of Beck's financial hand, but also because the first time I ever saw Miss Deb was in a 2011 clip from Beck's show on Fox News, which she had posted on the Patriot Camp website.
In the clip, Miss Deb is sitting in the studio audience, alongside two other Pennsylvania moms, explaining the inspiration behind their camp. The inspiration, it turns out, was Glenn Beck. "One day," she begins, "we heard you talk on your radio about Obama organizations doing summer camps, and we thought, 'No, we need to do our own!'" She goes on to describe how she and the other moms searched wide and far but couldn't find any decent American Revolution curriculums, how they were so excited by Beck's "Founders' Fridays"—a recurring segment on his show—that they decided to write one themselves. When she finishes, Beck adds: "And I started the fund-raiser for this, right? My wife and I wrote a check."
The Becks gave a "generous donation," according to Yvonne Donnelly, Beck's ex-sister-in-law and founder of Constitutional Champions, the umbrella nonprofit that propelled the moms' Patriot Camp idea nationwide. Donnelly was in the studio that day, too, nodding as Beck described his contribution. (Soon after this episode aired, Beck was criticized for a remark he made on-air about the massacre in Norway, when a right-wing terrorist killed sixty-nine people at a camp for leftist teens: "It sounds a little like, you know, the Hitler Youth or whatever. Who does a camp for kids that's all about politics? Disturbing.")
It was Donnelly who adapted the Pennsylvania moms' curriculum into a guidebook for volunteers eager to set up a Patriot Camp in their area. Under the federal tax code, Constitutional Champions is registered as a 501(c)(3), a tax-exempt designation for nonprofit organizations, which means it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity. This past summer there were at least 150 camps nationwide based on the book's outlines, many of which were created or sponsored by local Tea Party-affiliated groups.
Still, on my flight to Paxtang, I wondered if maybe I was being overly cynical—too prejudiced about what I was going to witness. Maybe this was just a camp. Albeit a camp that taught, instead of archery or the wedgie arts, a conservative take on American history—the nerd-bait equivalent of summer school for Lincoln-Douglas debaters or prepubescent water colorists. After three days here, I can tell you the vast majority of Patriot Camp was harmless. But on the few occasions it wasn't all dodgeball and kiddie-pooling, it really, really wasn't. And in those moments, the fact that this was a camp for little kids never stopped being, to use Beck's word, disturbing. Like 9-year-olds-joking-about-assassination disturbing.
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