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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Constitutional Fundamentalists

Aug 20th, 2011
F. Grey Parker

Whether they call themselves "originalists" or "Tenthers," it's become clear over the last two years that the American right has taken one of its more dubious, longstanding and previously fringe arguments to a whole new level.

They now espouse a political philosophy which seeks to impose upon us something quite different than simple respect for the Constitution. This is not the "originalism" of previous generations. They would actually have us worship the thing. Their argument generally starts something like this:
"You don't interpret the Constitution! It says what it says."
For the most part, it appears that people who push such a position have either never read it very closely themselves or, more frighteningly, are counting on too many other people not having read it at all. What makes them dangerous is that this view is usually accompanied by efforts to enforce as narrow a set of guaranteed liberties for the individual as possible.

The most common tactic they employ while arguing against interpretation is to simultaneously create an endless series of reinterpretations of the "founders."

The irony of their own revisionism is lost on them.

Josh Holland writes:

"When the Tea Partiers stormed into Congress, one of their first acts was a bit of political theater arranged by Tea Party caucus leader Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota: reading the Constitution (with the embarrassing bits edited out) aloud on the floor of the House." EMPHASIS OURS

Gone, for example, was the original reference to the African American as "3/5ths" of a person. Gone was the original provision which stipulated that only landowning males could vote. This is incredibly important and not as a gotcha moment.

Whether it is Michele Bachmann, David Barton, Glenn Beck or any number of others, the argument of these fundamentalists (for there is no other accurate term) is that they and only they get to tell us what the document actually says.

It goes deeper and dangerously so. They speak not of the contentious and nearly 13 year debate between men that led to the ratification of the original text in 1788. Instead, they describe the Constitution as a "covenant" which was the result of "divine" inspiration. This is the foundation for their claim that any diversion from their position is not only "anti-American," it is also outright heretical.

They have referred to the adoption of their point of view as "repentance." Indeed, they claim that the drafting of the Constitution was a "miracle."

Holland cites one of the better analyses of the movement:

"In her book, The Whites of Their Eyes, Jill Lepore writes that the problem with the Tea Partiers’ claimed fealty to the Constitution is that it's a form of religion rather than analysis."

Ya think?

"Originalism," Lepore writes, "looks like history, but it is not; it’s historical fundamentalism, which is to history what astrology is to astronomy, what alchemy is to chemistry, what creationism is to evolution."

The contemporary Constitutional fundamentalist relies on the general electorate's ignorance of language itself. For example, the fact that the term "general welfare" isn't explicitly defined in some sub-addendum to the document is one of their weapons. It is their position that only they can define it.

They cast themselves as more than public servants; They would have us regard them as priests and priestesses. They tell us that the "general welfare" most certainly doesn't mean things like infrastructure, public transportation, education or unemployment insurance... because they don't like those things. And we dare not question them because they say they are channeling divinity.

'Let it be done.'

Does that sound Jeffersonian to you?

They seek to confuse in the minds of Americans the consistent deism of our early leaders with their own Christianist Dominionism.

"...fundamentalism requires a strict adherence to a sacred document, and that's where today's constitutional conservatives go off the rails. As I wrote back in May, “constitutional conservatives,” once in power, have offered any number of legislative proposals which, on their face, are blatantly unconstitutional. Bachmann – who is obsessed with lightbulbs -- herself proposed a bill on their regulation that would have required Congress to usurp the executive branch's enumerated powers in obvious violation of settled constitutional law."

When confronted with their own falsehoods and fairy tales, they refuse to admit error. They try to confuse in the minds of Americans the consistent Deism of our early leaders with their own Christianist Dominionism.

These radical fundamentalists are no more exemplars of our Constitutional ideals than Mohammed Atta was to the teachings of the Koran.

But, they might be more dangerous.

No one was promising to vote for Atta in a Presidential primary.


  1. I take the word religious fundamentalism to mean sticking to an IMMUTABLE ancient text . The constitution is very mutable and comprehends the very considerable changes made through amendments . It has eliminated ownership of people, male only voting, added a Bill of Rights, and more. I see originalism as interpreting each part of the constitution to mean what those who ratified it best understood it to mean. You can consult the Federal Papers which were written by Madison (AKA father of the constitution), Hamilton and Jay, and published before the constitution was ratified to explain it. In constrast to the constitution, the Federalist papers are verbose. In Federalist 41 Madison explains in detail how general welfare spending is limited to enumerated powers. He explains, "But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms ["to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States"] immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon? "
    In Federalist 45 Madison explains the division of power: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. "The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State." and any honest judge will consider this when interpreting the constitution.”
    The originalist, like myself, I assume would have a problem with reinterpreting the spending on General Welfare to extend beyond the enumerate powers without amending the constitution. Some argue Hamilton's expansive definition of "General Welfare" in his "Report on Manufacturers" written when he was part of the government the constitution was created to limit. Hamilton did not contradict, I think, Madison's definition in the Federalist papers he wrote that followed #41 when he was in the role of supporting a constitution that realized men in government needed to have their powers limited. It was when Hamilton was acting as a politician whose power would be expanded that he proposed the broad definition. From Federalist 51:
    "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."
    To me originalism attempts to find the original meaning of the constitution and its AMENDMENTS. The original constitution is not regarded as absolute truth as are religious texts by religious fundamentalist. It has changed significantly over time.
    To the degree that the constitution means what it was intended to mean we have a government of laws and not of men.
    To the degree the constitution means whatever legislators and judges say it means, we are a country of men and not of laws.
    When the constitution needs to change we should go through the disciplined process of getting a super majority of states to amend it and not use the arbitrary processes of judges or legislators reinterpreting it. When we consider what a part of the constitution means we should consider pubic-ally available documents available before the Amendment or original text was modified. Only when such information is not available should interpretation be necessary.

  2. What is important about the constitution is that it not mean whatever a judge, president or house of congress wants it to mean. Unlike an ancient religious text, the constitution is amendable and its original meaning has changed dramatically illegalizing slavery, women suffer age, the Bill of Rights, direct election of senators ...

    The point is that changing the meaning of the constitution should not be done by arbitrary reinterpretation but through amendment that requires a super majority of states. If the law / constitution means whatever the interpreter likes it to mean we have the rule of man, not the rule of man.
    Any comparison to religious fundamentalism should point out the tremendous difference that one relies on immutable meaning of a perfect ancient text, while the other relies on amending the current text and following its current meaning closely.

    John (but more concise this time).