Getting back to the country's founders

Pasadena lawyer sees his mission as familiarizing fellow citizens with their Constitution

March 21, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts

Wars overseas that last for years. Multibillion-dollar bailouts. A push for a trillion-dollar health care makeover.

Whether born on the left or the right side of the political aisle, the government's huge initiatives of recent years have left perhaps more ordinary citizens than ever wondering what influence they have over the forces that shape their lives.

Into this breach steps Michael Anthony Peroutka, a Pasadena attorney, former U.S. presidential candidate (he led the U.S. Constitution Party ticket in 2008, winning more than 150,000 votes) and co-founder of the Institute on the Constitution, an educational initiative that has offered seminar-style courses on the nation's founding documents since 2000.

Peroutka, 57, is no trained political scientist. A Czech-American and unabashed anti-abortion Presbyterian, he found himself getting frustrated so often at news reports of current events that he says had to do something.

"I got tired of throwing shoes at the TV," he says. "It was time to take real steps."

Peroutka and his brother and law partner, Stephen Peroutka, started the IOTC, an "educational outreach" arm of their law firm. About 500 people have taken the institute's courses on the U.S. and Maryland constitutions, and thousands more have attended lectures by guest speakers and studied the materials online. More than three dozen are enrolled in the current 12-week course on the U.S. Constitution, which Peroutka teaches.

In this, the institute's 10th year, there's more interest in the subject than ever, he says.

Perhaps the oddest part of Peroutka's mission has been realizing that even though most would call his views of life very conservative, he has learned to hew ever more closely to what he deems to be the attitudes of the founders, some of the most successful revolutionaries in history.

"That makes me a revolutionary, too, doesn't it?" he asks.

Those who have taken the course don't seem to mind. John and Marty Rogerson of West River decided to enroll a year ago out of a general sense of unease at the direction of government in recent years.

"I felt that, as a nation, we were just missing the mark as to where we should be headed," says Marty Rogerson, who heard of the class in a radio commercial. "I saw this as an opportunity to get back to the basics. What does our Constitution really say?"

She learned, among other things, that the founding documents encouraged a more self-reliant approach to life than is generally prevalent today, she says.

Marilyn Jacob of Baltimore, a self-described Christan, is attending the current course with a friend who is not. Both, she says, have found it "eye-opening" to see how deeply the founders' religious faith informed their views on government.

"Kids aren't taught that today," she says.

In a classroom dotted with signs reading "God, Family, Country," and posters depicting the founders, their teacher spoke of his 10-year mission.

Question: How did the IOTC get started?

Answer: The first meeting happened after Stephen and I had several conversations in which we realized that even though we had taken an oath to the Maryland and U.S. constitutions, as every [Maryland] attorney does, we were like many people: We knew very little that was in them.

We were also getting tired of feeling frustrated at what we saw happening on the news and not having a way to understand it. We decided to stop cursing the darkness and to light a candle.

We contacted some friends and business associates and said, "Let's get together and study the [U.S.] Constitution." We found some materials to do that. Later we found more, then developed our own curriculum. Ten years later, we're still at it.

Q: Are most citizens the way you were - unfamiliar with the Constitution?

A: I'll tell you a story. One of our instructors, the Rev. David Whitney, ran for state delegate and found himself onstage with some other candidates.

One of his opponents - he's a delegate now - said, "What's that book you're quoting from?" David said, "The Maryland Constitution." The man replied, "Where can I get a copy?"

Yes, we have elected officials who have taken an oath to defend the state constitution who have never read it or even seen it. Lots of them. And, of course, it's not just them. The problem is widespread.

Q: Why do Americans need to know these documents?

A: That puts me in mind of our founders and one of the things that impresses me most about them. When they stepped out against the most powerful army and navy in the world, they didn't just act like rabble in the streets. They learned what history's documents said. They went back to the Magna Carta, to the Mayflower Compact. They saw they needed not just to revolt against something, but to restore something positive.

I hope we all become concerned citizens who know what the Constitution says, what the rules are. I don't know what the future holds, but this way we can act intelligently.

Q: How did the early classes go?

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