Camp in Rindge combines the Constitution, conservative principles and a ‘climate realist’

  • Willie Soon, billed as a ‘climate realist,’ addresses the camp. STAFF PHOTO BY TONY MARQUIS

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/10/2017 7:26:36 PM

Smithsonian Institution scientist and “climate realist” Willie Soon began his Camp Constitution lecture titled “The Climate-Change Hoax” with a question.

“How many people think that carbon dioxide, the so-called satanic gas, can be really dangerous for the whole climate and the whole Earth itself?” he asked.

None of the dozens of campers ages 5 to 15, the teenage staff members, the handful of parents or other speakers at Camp Constitution in Rindge raised their hands.

“Zero? Y’all can go home now,” Soon said.

Soon spent the next 50 minutes talking about how energy taxes were taxes on the poor, and how the sun, not carbon dioxide, was the primary driver of climate change. Digs at former Vice President and environmental activist Al Gore and former President Barack Obama got more laughs. A comment about getting rid of the United Nations was met with applause.

Soon pointed out that according to his research, a person exhales carbon dioxide at a level of 10,000 parts per million, so the next time someone tells a camper that carbon dioxide is dangerous, “you tell them to stop breathing” -- a joke that was met with more laughter.

Midway through the lecture, Soon encouraged the younger campers to think for themselves. 

He also gave a disclaimer.

“I’m truly speaking on my own behalf,” Soon said. “It’s only strictly my own opinion because my workplace is putting very strong constraints on where I should speak.”

It’s a disclaimer heard around the weeklong camp — a one-of-a-kind experience with a collection of speakers unlike any other in the country. 

If you talk to those speakers, they’ll tell you this is a place for people with similar ideas to come together and share those ideas. And that it’s open for everyone.

No other camp like this

“You don’t have to agree with us, you can run your own camp,” said Hal Shurtleff, director of Camp Constitution, talking about criticism his camp has received while sitting at one of the tables in the dining hall of the Toah Nipi Retreat Center in Rindge. 

Shurtleff co-founded the camp with former Rindge resident Charlie Everett in 2008. Everett started a similar camp in South Lake Tahoe, California in 1975 and Shurtleff ran a camp called Freedom Generation, as part of the John Birch Society, a conservative advocacy organization that encourages limited government. Shurtleff was a regional director for the society, which canceled Freedom Generation camp in 2008. 

Shurtleff was reluctant to mention the rift between the John Birch Society, but talked about the cancellation after the camp ended Sunday. He talked about an ultimatum issued by former society CEO Art Thompson: Quit the camp or quit the society.

“(Thompson) never said a word about Camp Constitution to me, I knew that he didn't like it.  It was an easy decision,” said Shurtleff.

Freedom Generation then became Camp Constitution. 

Over the years, Shurtleff has encountered some resistance to his camp, which marries teachings of Constitution, Christian values (the camp accepts all denominations) with conservative speakers, like Tea Party activist KrisAnne Hall, who spoke in 2014-16.

“They’re your children,” said Shurtleff. “You have a right to teach them what you want.”

Rev. Steven Craft, an ordained Baptist minister from New Jersey, is part of Camp Constitution’s Speakers Bureau, and has come to the camp since 2009 to speak. Craft, who is black, made headlines last year for offering a letter of support to Maine Gov. Paul LePage, after the governor made controversial comments about race and drug trafficking.

Craft hasn’t spoken at any other camp.

“It’s unique,” said Craft. “I know of no other Camp Constitution.”

Camper: ‘Best classes’

The camp opened Monday with a class on the Constitution, taught by Shurtleff. It followed with a lecture titled “Crimes of the Educators” by Alex Newman, who writes for the John Birch Society’s The New American magazine, among other publications. After Newman, the John Birch Society president, John McManus taught a class about “The New World Order.”

Manus, who taught a handful of classes at the camp, has spoken at Tea Party events. Over lunch, McManus spoke about his class.

“I asked fourth graders, if you’re $20 trillion in debt, would you give away money?” McManus said. “They said, ‘No.’

“I said, please run for Congress.”

Other camp speakers included Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America and Pastor Earl Wallace, of the Liberty Christian Fellowship church in Half Moon, New York, came to teach two classes: “Applying 10 Commandments to Advocate for Bill of Rights in Contemporary Issues” and “13 Rules for Radicals Used to Redistribute Wealth & Wreck the Republic.” 

“Our challenge is there are more public school children that need this information, because they’re not going to be able to grow up in the America that we grew up in,” said Wallace, who is also a former high school English teacher.

Most of the children in attendance hailed from Massachusetts and New Hampshire, though outside the Monadnock region. And most came from families who had chosen to home school their kids.

Alex Peik, 14 of Hollis, has been coming to the camp since he was nine. He called Monday’s classes, including Soon’s, the “best classes, for a first day.”

His father, Rod, who introduced Soon and is a member of the John Birch Society, said he attended public schools and his family has made several sacrifices to make sure his five children have the best home school education he can provide. 

“It worked for me, but it could have been a lot better,” said Rod Peik of schooling.

Rod Peik, who attended Monday’s classes with his son, said parents who choose home school tend to learn libertarian, but that he’s “never going to agree with everything” said at the camp. The son echoed his father.

“I’m not going to know any more than any of the speakers that are going to be here, so I’m not going to disagree,” Alex Peik said. “But I’ll do my own research to makes sure what I’m hearing is correct.”

‘We don’t turn out anybody’

Everett, who now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, spoke candidly about the need for young people to experience Camp Constitution and be educated.

“Hopefully it will stay with them,” he said. “When they come across some left-wing idiot, they’ll know he’s wrong.”

For all the Tea Party talk, Everett is insistent: “We don’t turn out anybody.”

The camp stresses its inclusivity. The camp paid scholarships for 11 teens to come as campers and staff members this year. People like Sebastio Adamo, of New Jersey, who used to be a camper and is back as a staff member. 

And it’s not all classes. From 1 to 5:30 p.m. every day, campers could play basketball or beach volleyball or go swimming in a lake. Or sit around a fire pit and enjoy the views of Mount Wachusett. 

Shurtleff and Craft spoke hopefully Monday about expanding Camp Constitution — giving this one-of-a-kind experience to more people.

“That’s our vision, we’d love to do this around the country in different locales,” Craft said.

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