Thursday, January 6, 2011

Read it? Yes. Worship it? No.

So they are reading the Constitution in the House today.  And Michelle Bachmann has enlisted Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia to teach new members of Congress about the Constitution.

It seems odd that anyone could run for and be elected to Congress without already being fairly well-versed in the Constitution, but let’s grant that there may be some value in a refresher course for some of these people.

What’s maddening about this is not any of these acts, but the motive: it is an attempt to claim the Constitution for one political party.  The Constitution does not belong to any ideology.  It is our common framework of government.

But the new Republican/Tea Party does not agree.  It believes that one and only interpretation of the Constitution is valid.  It maintains the fiction that there is something concrete called “original intent” which leads to an objective truth about the constitutionality of any proposal.

The right has tried to elevate the Constitution to the level of holy writ.  Cal Thomas, in his column this week, put it explicitly: “As with Scripture, the Constitution contains eternal truths.”  These people do not see the Constitution as a great but flawed work of men—for them, it is a divine document.  And only they really understand what it means.

This is a tremendously dangerous idea.  The Constitution is not scripture.  It is not something to be worshipped.  You would think people who say they take religion seriously would know to keep sacred only that which is truly sacred.

But since they believe the Constitution contains “eternal truths,” they think if they can monopolize its meaning they can render all opposition to their ideas as inherently false.

And what meaning do they find in it?  One simple idea: “limited government.”  Thomas asserts that its “principles—like limited government—transcend eras.”  But they never stop to ask what motive lies behind that principle.  Was it “limited government” as an end in and of itself?  No. 

The purpose of limited government is to protect liberty.  When the Constitution was written, there was only one real threat to liberty: government power.  But the key political insight of the post-Civil War era has been that there are other threats to liberty. 

Slavery showed that an individual could deny liberty in every sense of the word to another human being.  Segregation showed that local and state governments could be greater threats to liberty than the federal government.  The rise of big business showed that private economic power could be as great a threat to liberty as government ever was.

By seeing the only threat to liberty as government, these Tea Party people show that they remain stuck in the 18th century.  Our problems are not the same, and our solutions cannot be the same.  Reading the Constitution and treating it as a sacred document gets us not one bit closer to solving the problems of the 21st century.  It is simple-minded posturing that masks a reactionary social and political agenda, and no worshipful reading of its text will change that.


  1. Mark, the other thing that is odd about this, to me, is that it is being read in Congress, as though somehow it belonged to Congress or were a product or legacy of Congress. The Constitution is the product of a constitutional convention. A ceremonial reading might be more appropriate were the sovereign people to call an assembly, put the legislature, executive and judiciary in the audience, and read them their ground rules. Unless of course the people assembled and remade the whole government. The Constitution may not be eternal but then again neither is the current system of government, which seems more concerned with perpetuating itself and satisfying the needs of interest groups than providing for the common welfare.

  2. They did in the House to lay claim to the idea that ONLY in the Republican-controlled House does the Constitution truly reign supreme--and NOT in the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House.