The Constitution Fetish

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Obama Administration

So Justice Scalia thinks the Constitution offers women no protection from gender discrimination. The 14th Amendment doesn’t apply to women, then, Justice Scalia? Weird. But then this is the same guy who couldn’t understand why Jewish war veterans might object to being memorialized by a Christian cross.

Anyway — there’s a good article by Michael Lind discussing how the U.S. Constitution became a sacred totem rather than a charter of government, which nicely follows a blog post I wrote last week. “The U.S. Constitution is not the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments,” he says. Ah HAH!

Lind says that the Constitution cult has its roots in 18th-century neoclassicism and was further nurtured in Christian fundamentalism, which makes sense. And I would take some of his points even further. He writes,

English-speaking democracies tend to be stable and free even when, like Britain, they lack a written constitution. But Latin American republics have been afflicted by dictatorship and civil war for generations in spite of having formal constitutions modeled on that of the United States. The contrast demonstrates that the true security for freedom is a culture of constitutionalism, not a particular constitution, or any written constitution at all. The details of a particular democratic political system — presidential or parliamentary, bicameral or unicameral, unitary or federal — are ultimately less important than the unwillingness of the citizens to resort to violence when they lose an election, unlike the Confederate ancestors of so many of today’s white Southern Republicans, who tried to destroy the country upon losing an election.

One of the interesting parallels between today’s teabaggers and yesterday’s Confederates is that both groups believe(d) themselves to be the true heirs of the Founding Fathers and the true faithful stewards of the Founding Scripture, the Constitution. Many secessionists justified secession by claiming the damnyankees were unfaithful to the Founding Vision and Principles; therefore, true patriots were obligated to make a break with the unfaithful North and retreat into an enclave of political purity in the South. The fact that they had to destroy the nation to do that didn’t seem to factor into their thinking.

Further, I continue to be struck by the degree to which the symbols and scripture of Christianity and the Constitution have all become something like totems — “An animal, plant, or natural object serving among certain tribal or traditional peoples as the emblem of a clan or family and sometimes revered as its founder, ancestor, or guardian.”

Thus there are people who want to erect the Ten Commandments in schools and courthouses who cannot, when put on the spot, recite them all. Likewise, I am convinced that your average Bible thumper would draw a blank if asked to list the major points made in the Sermon on the Mount or explain the parable of the unleavened bread. The Bible has become a totem; merely invoking or displaying it provides some kind of mystical protection for the tribe.

Likewise the Constitution. Every time I hear some teabagger rave on about how liberals are destroying the Constitution I so want to give him a pop quiz to demonstrate the guy has no clue what is actually in the Constitution, and wouldn’t recognize it if it rose up out of the sidewalk and bit his ass.

I just found this on another blog, from last year before the mid-terms —

The Founders’ masterpiece, O’Donnell said, isn’t just a legal document; it’s a “covenant” based on “divine principles.” For decades, she continued, the agents of “anti-Americanism” who dominate “the D.C. cocktail crowd” have disrespected the hallowed document. But now, finally, in the “darker days” of the Obama administration, “the Constitution is making a comeback.” Like the “chosen people of Israel,” who “cycle[d] through periods of blessing and suffering,” the Tea Party has rediscovered America’s version of “the Hebrew Scriptures” and led the country into “a season of constitutional repentance.” Going forward, O’Donnell declared, Republicans must champion the “American values” enshrined in our sacred text. “There are more of us than there are of them,” she concluded.

By now, O’Donnell’s rhetoric should sound familiar. In part that’s because her fellow Tea Party patriots—Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, the guy at the rally in the tricorn hat—also refer to the Constitution as if it were a holy instruction manual that was lost, but now, thanks to them, is found. And yet the reverberations go further back than Beck. The last time America elected a new Democratic president, in 1992, the Republican Party’s then-dominant insurgent group used identical language to describe the altogether different document that defined their cause and divided them from the heretics in charge: the Bible. The echoes of the religious right in O’Donnell’s speech—the Christian framework, the resurrection narrative, the “us vs. them” motif, the fixation on “values”—aren’t coincidental.

You’ll remember that Christine O’Donnell didn’t understand what “separation of church and state” means and how it relates to the 1st Amendment. See also “All Patriots ‘Know’ That Moses Wrote the Constitution.”

The Constitution is the Fifth Gospel for these people, I tell you. Of course, they don’t know what the traditional Four Gospels say, either. And, as the Dead Peasant points out, just as fundamentalists are certain only they understand the Bible, teabaggers are certain only they understand the Constitution. Even if they don’t know what’s in it.

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28 Comments

27 Comments

  1. Gordon  •  Jan 4, 2011 @2:59 pm

    If Scalia would admit that his version of Originalism also means that the 2nd amendment only applies to muzzle loaders and muskets, a conversation might be possible.

  2. Tom Hilton  •  Jan 4, 2011 @3:13 pm

    The wrongest possible interpretation of any text is that which purports not to interpret it at all.

  3. c u n d gulag  •  Jan 4, 2011 @3:36 pm

    Maybe the confusion is with the groupings of 10?
    Numerology.
    There were 10 Commandments. And there were 10 initial Amendments.
    And God never gave Moses any amended ones later, like about slavery, women, gays, civil rights, etc. So, maybe that’s Scalia’s thinking – but more probably nothing more than simple mysogeny, and the belief in a mans right to own property and chattel, and rule over all the women, children, plants and animals in God’s dominion.
    Oh, if only the Founding Fathers, those imperfect sages and non-prophets had only stopped at 8 or 9, or gone to 11 or 12. But no, like the prophets of Jesus that they were, they stopped at 10, just like God did with Moses.
    Remember something about the Founding Fathers. Many of them had just fought or been witness to two wars in their lifetimes – the first one against the French, and the other their war for independence from England. And that, rather than ‘the perfect in every way’ representatives of God on this Earth, they were looked upon as traiterous bastards by the British (one mans freedom fighter is another ones traitor or terrorist), rather than as a collection of prophets like Moses, whose loyal followers should be commanded to be fruitful and multiply and spread the new gospel of democray via the new republic throughtout the former colonies (and later expanded into an outreach program by military means). And they were tired of war, and had some fear of state vs. state issues. There were already little border skirmishes happening between certain states. So, after the “Articles” didn’t work too well, they went further, and worked as a group on a new constitution to be the “framework for the NATIONS future,” and not as some set of rules for all of time, forever and ever, Amen…
    A lot of what they created in the Constitution came not just from Britith common law, but from an attempt to fill in the gaps that they found there. So, many of the constitutionl rules and amendments come not from God, or Yahweh, or Moses, or Jesus, but from The Magna Carta, and the rules of law and governanace that grew as Britian grew and adjusted to changes in society. Changes were not only allowed, they were encouraged to be made, by following certain rules, to insure fairness.
    I think someone in the last post about this summed up conservative thinking by quoting Al Franken when he said (and I’m paraphrasing): Liberals and Conservatives both love their country. Liberals love it like adults love their parents – with affection and an appreciation for what they did, as well as of their flaws and quirks. Conservatives love their country like a young child, with unswerving belief, devotion, and unquestioning faith.
    And may God, He/She/It, help us if these “Godly” poeple take over this country.
    ‘Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do…’

  4. nodrog  •  Jan 4, 2011 @3:50 pm

    Sorry Gordo, the second amendment refers to an armed militia, but doesn’t specifiy the armament. Although to be fair, there were court cases in the 1870’s that specified the armament as rifles and bayonets for infantrymen, swords and pistols for cavalrymen, and cannon for artillerymen, because the court was finding that brass knuckles, truncheons and knives didn’t count, and so could be taken away from drunken brawlers, and it wasn’t a violation of the 2nd amendment. Or something like that.

    And O’Donnell was right about the 1st amendment, which I guess is worth quoting:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    It says nothing about seperation of, and probably more to her point, says nothing about state or local governments, although through incorporation lots of the Bill of rights gets applied to the states. Gets messy sometimes–witness the Mormons and polygamy, and Rastafarians and their ganga and Santeria and animal sacrifice.

  5. maha  •  Jan 4, 2011 @5:10 pm

    Sorry Gordo, the second amendment refers to an armed militia, but doesn’t specifiy the armament.

    I think you missed the point Gordon was making, or at least the point I think he was making — if we’re going to stay frozen in an 18th-century understanding of the Constitution, then we have to assume the 2nd only protects a right to own 18th-century firearms. If we assume the Constitution is a “living” document that can be re-interpreted to accommodate changing circumstances and issues, then most of the teabaggers’ arguments about the Constitution fly out the window.

    And O’Donnell was NOT right about the First Amendment. “Separation of church and state” was a metaphor coined by Thomas Jefferson to explain what the establishment and free exercise clauses mean. The phrase has come to be the name of the principles of religious freedom that the First Amendment protects. (See, for further explanation, In Support of Separation of Church and State” and “Separation (of Church and State) Anxiety.”)

    No, the Bill of Rights does not say anything about state and local governments. The Bill of Rights as written was meant to be only a prohibition on federal law. The 14th Amendment complicated that a tad, however, and over the years case law has determined that states cannot violate the rights of citizens spelled out in the Bill of Rights.

    Do keep up.

  6. uncledad  •  Jan 4, 2011 @5:02 pm

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”

    Hey nodrog that is the separation you fucking imbecile, if congress (the state) can’t establish religion, then that means we have no official religion and the state is prohibited from making such a connection. Get a functioning mind you fucking dimwitted teabagger.

  7. LillithMc  •  Jan 4, 2011 @5:13 pm

    Good analysis. They are living in the 19th Century and are quite capable of wrecking this country again. I would like Scalia to compare a woman to a corporation. Which one is a person? Do women have as many rights of citizenship as a corporation?

  8. c u n d gulag  •  Jan 4, 2011 @5:19 pm

    maha,
    I wouldn’t be surprised to find that “Gordon” and “nodrog” (‘gordon’ backwards), was the same person setting up an answer to a question he set himself up for.
    I could be wrong, but it’s too less clever by more than half.

  9. dr. luba  •  Jan 4, 2011 @5:30 pm

    Once again, life imitates art. The Onion, from Nov, 2009:

  10. maha  •  Jan 4, 2011 @5:30 pm

    LillithMc — Yes, Scalia needs to explain to all of us how corporations are persons and women are not.

  11. dr. luba  •  Jan 4, 2011 @5:31 pm

    Linkage didn’t work: “Area Man Passionate Defender of What He Imagines Constitution To Be”

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/area-man-passionate-defender-of-what-he-imagines-c,2849/

  12. Gordon  •  Jan 4, 2011 @5:37 pm

    Yes, Maha, you got me exactly right. Thank you.

  13. Gordon  •  Jan 4, 2011 @5:41 pm

    Gulag – no, I don’t do that. More likely a troll didn’t like my comment (they’re real sensitive about their 2nd amendment) and didn’t want to leave his name.

  14. c u n d gulag  •  Jan 4, 2011 @5:43 pm

    Sorry, Gordon.
    My apologies. Like I said, ‘I could be wrong,’ and I was.
    I wish I had a buck for every time. I’d retire comfortably.

  15. Gordon  •  Jan 4, 2011 @6:03 pm

    Gulag – no problem.

    The topic of this post was touched on by Ezra today (on filibuster reform), and he mentions the emails he got when he talked about “constitutionality”: The common theme in these e-mails, aside from my general worthlessness and Stalinist leanings, has been an argument that the Constitution is very clear that the policies the writer prefers are constitutional and the policies they don’t prefer are unconstitutional and only an idiot would believe otherwise. There’ve been enough of them to convince me that the perception that the Obama administration isn’t just liberal, but is unconstitutional in a way that’s actively dangerous, has more traction on the right than I’d realized.

  16. Virginia  •  Jan 4, 2011 @6:05 pm

    Whenever some know-nothing conservative tells me that the Constitution is so plain on its face that it requires no interpretation, I ask him (it’s almost always a him) to explain what the word “arms” means in the second amendment.

    Does it refer to those two things hanging from your torso. If so, we have no argument. I fully support everyone’s right to bear arms under any circumstances. Does it refer to any conceivable type of weaponry? You’ve got a long list there, starting with a hand axe and ending with scud missiles, nukes, and anthrax. Which ones are covered by that “shall not be infringed” language? All of them? Do felons have the right to bear arms? Children? The Constitution doesn’t say that they don’t.

    Ok, court cases have defined some of these things, but that’s what’s known as interpretation.

  17. c u n d gulag  •  Jan 4, 2011 @6:12 pm

    Virginia,
    And usually, ‘interpretation’ had a known liberal bias.

  18. Felicity  •  Jan 4, 2011 @6:48 pm

    From reading maha and the comments above, it’s pretty clear that the ‘written’ word can and does become a bludgeon of reason. Socrates didn’t write anything down, nor, of course, did Jesus. For good ‘reason’?

  19. Bonnie  •  Jan 4, 2011 @8:43 pm

    Scalia is a ridiculous man and a bully. He should be impeached. The Country would be much better off without such a corrupt man on the Court.

  20. Doug Hughes  •  Jan 4, 2011 @8:53 pm

    “Thus there are people who want to erect the Ten Commandments in schools and courthouses who cannot, when put on the spot, recite them all.”

    “Every time I hear some teabagger rave on about how liberals are destroying the Constitution I so want to give him a pop quiz to demonstrate the guy has no clue what is actually in the Constitution, and wouldn’t recognize it if it rose up out of the sidewalk and bit his ass.”

    I would dearly love for someone to come up with a web site with a timed, open-book test on the Constitution. Frankly I’d like to see who could score better – self-described liberals or conservatives.

    Likewise a test on Health Care Reform and associated facts.

    Heck, post a quiz on the bible – I think a lot of atheists are better informed on Christianity than many bible-thumpers.

  21. PurpleGirl  •  Jan 4, 2011 @8:58 pm

    I always have the feeling that they have confused the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence. Also that they don’t know which one came first.

  22. Swami  •  Jan 4, 2011 @9:19 pm

    Socrates didn’t write anything down, nor, of course, did Jesus. For good ‘reason’?

    Jesus didn’t write anything down for the same reason that Paul Bunyan didn’t write anything down.

  23. tom b  •  Jan 4, 2011 @10:40 pm

    Just like Bush II was Yale’s biggest PR problem, Scalia is huge embarrassment to Harvard. For the record, “Militia” does NOT mean YOU or your brother; it means the army. No, we didn’t pass the ERA, but you can blame Utah for that; people in normal states recognize women as people.

  24. maha  •  Jan 4, 2011 @11:50 pm

    For the record, “Militia” does NOT mean YOU or your brother; it means the army.

    More specifically, the original state militias morphed into the National Guard.

  25. Gordon  •  Jan 4, 2011 @10:45 pm

    Dahlia Lithwick just went into these issues on Rachel Maddow (hosted by Chris Hayes tonight).

  26. muldoon  •  Jan 5, 2011 @2:55 am

    Excellent post, Maha. Thank you for putting it out there.

    I think Dr. Robert Altemeyer, who wrote “The Authoritarians,” made a very interesting observation when he said something along the lines of: If Christian authoritarian followers actually believed the Bible was truly God’s Word, wouldn’t you think they would to learn everything in it? But they don’t. They settle for those select bits and pieces their religious leaders choose to emphasize. If anyone claims to know the Bible by heart, ask them to recite the First Book of Chronicles, Ch. 1-12.

    Same can be said for those who claim to worship at the altar of the founding fathers. Sure, they may haul around their pocket copies of the Constitution as proof of whatever someone has told them is important, and proclaim themselves expert on the subject, but have they ever invested the time and money to take a Constitutional Law class? Well, no, because they have read the Constitution, and it is clearly spelled out there.

    Which is about equivalent to reading “Schrodinger’s Cat” and assuming this makes you an authority on quantum physics.

    As for Scalia– anyone who thinks he’s brilliant really needs to read his opinions.

  27. skshapiro  •  Jan 5, 2011 @11:54 am

    Scalia inadvertently gives support to proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment who always claimed that the 14th Amendment did not provide adequate protection for women.

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