Today the Republicans in the House of Representatives are reading the Constitution aloud, as symbolic token to the Tea Party’s devotion to the document. A good civics lesson, or “sanctimonious reverence” ?
The Tea Party. Why is it that bible thumpers (of which the Tea Party abounds) claim to love the Constitution so? Because it’s not that the two world views are inextricably wed, there are plenty of conservatives and libertarians who are religious moderates or even atheists (like Ayan Rand). And there are even a number of left wing Evangelicals like Tony Compalo and Jim Wallace. But today’s political conservatism embodies the yin and yang of both Christian and historical fundamentalism. Biblical literalism meets Constitutional orginalism.
Which I guess should not be too surprising. It makes sense that if you hold to a literal and inerrant view of the Bible that you would look at the US Constitution in much the same way, especially if you you believe that Americans have replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people (and like the Israelites, we have often gone astray). If we asked a Tea Partier, I think we would hear some interesting similarities in how both the Constitution and the Bible are viewed.
-should to be taken literally, meaning that the written words are to be understood precisely as they were written and not subject to individual interpretation
-share the ultimate authority on how Americans should live their lives, holding to the author’s original intent (and God’s will)
-are able to transcend time, speaking as authoritatively on today’s issues as within their own day, having been written by devoutly religious men who were directly inspired by God to be both prophetic and prescient, able to anticipate every correct response to all future events.
These assertions are, of course, absolutely incorrect, as proven by a reading of the historical record, accompanied by a dash of the much heralded “common sense”. It is obvious to most who study scripture that the circumstances and situations addressed in the Bible are not always, if even very often, germane to today’s world. Christian fundamentalists realize this as well, since they are very selective about which ‘fact’ they will believe or which stricture or dictate they will obey. Very few still believe that the Earth is flat, as suggested in Genesis, and no one (outside of the Chalcedon Foundation) wants to have sassy children put to death. Though they may not allow women to be ordained, they no longer force them to wear scarves in church.
Times change and not everything written 200 or 2000 or 4000 years ago is relevant today. Though it may have made perfect sense in that time and place, neither the Bible or the Constitution present the perfect solution to every challenge we are presented with today. They were written by flawed men (and maybe women) who were doing their best to define the truths of the universe while addressing the challenges of their day. Like it or not, their work must be interpreted, which means that there will always be differences of opinion and no accurate or permanent orthodoxy can ever take form. No orthodoxy has ever endured without some sort of evolution. Centuries later we cannot delve into the writers’ minds and we cannot know their intent, any more than their writings can convey to us the true will of God. Nor are the authors’ intentions (or their understanding of God) necessarily relevant today.
Though the Constitution is undoubtedly a work of genius and in its time came very close to offering the ideal formula for engineering a sustainable American liberty, it was not then and is not now perfect. If it was perfect then it is unlikely that there would still be heated scholarly debate over its meaning. The perfect Constitutional solutions to so many problems have long eluded us. If perfect, there would have been no allowance for slavery and there certainly would have been no Civil War.
If Americans had allowed themselves to become slaves to their rigid interpretations of both the Constitution and the Bible, we would have no Emancipation Proclamation, no Civil Rights Act, and no women voters. Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams and St. Paul could never envision a world in which the injustices of slavery and misogyny did not exist and each day produces new challenges that they never could have imagined.
But there is something very comforting to think of both Bible and Constitution in special supernatural ways, providing us with a cosmic link to the past and the men we have come to see as our spiritual fathers. And as devoted children, we develop a fierce defensive posture whenever the work of our fathers is threatened, or even questioned. Especially when that work provides us with a sense of security, a defense against those who might take from us or as a means of preventing rewards being bestowed upon those who do not deserve it. “Strict” interpretation of both Constitution and Bible have been used to shore up the positions of the powerful and the entitled at the expense of the underrepresented and the different.
I can think of no other reason for the forced marriage of the Bible to the Constitution other than that religious fundamentalism and a fundamentalist view of history are both the result of psychological insecurity and fear. Which becomes abundantly clear when we see the slogans and signs and hear the speeches emanating from the Right, hysterically linking God the Father with the Founding Fathers, equating love of the Bible with love of the Constitution. It is ironic that so many of these folks, when asked to provide some positional support from their two most sacred texts, seem to know so little about either of them. Or of those who wrote them.
“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human” – Thomas Jefferson