By Christopher Cudworth
The human instinct to distill ideas down to their simplest level is an admirable endeavor. Ernest Hemingway used words with economy. His prose still overflowed with meaning.
The authors of the Holy Bible also showed talent for saying what needed to be said. For that same reason the Bible can be difficult to deconstruct. Picking apart the supposed Word of God is no small deed.
In government, the United States Constitution enjoys a status that is similarly sacroscant. Legal scholars hesitate to embellish on the laws written by the Founding Fathers, who frankly beat the crap out of each other over every word.
But we too soon forget about that. Instead there seems to be a tendency for people of a certain legal bent who appear to believe the Constitution is on par with holy writ. Yet they also claim to be able to discern what the original authors truly meant through an interesting legal theory called originalism.
Originalism as an ideology
Originalism is just what it sounds like. Originalists believe the Constitution is to be taken literally, just as it was written, rather than interpreted or amended, as Americans have occasionally seen fit to do.
Originalism therefore operates in much the same intellectual sphere as biblical literalism and its dogmatic progeny, fundamentalism. Biblical fundamentalists believe the Bible says certain things that are immutably true. Absolutes. In its most literal mode, fundamentalism essentially does the same thing to Holy Scripture that originalism does with the United States Constitution.
Both deign to read the minds of the original authors, with sole right to do so bequeathed to those who think alike.
The inevitable convergence of these cultural thought memes has been in progress for a long time, but most pronouncedly in the last 40 years or so, when conservative thought leaders on the political side began dragging America back to the so-called “original” interpretation of the United States Constitution and conservative religious factions began demanding that the Bible be represented only as infallible, inerrant and literal in its context.
The problem with both originalism and fundamentalism as social constructs is that they by definition ignore the significant social changes by which society has evolved to provide equal rights to all citizens regardless of race, creed, religion, gender or sexual orientation. To ignore these changes is to dumb down the culture rather than enlighten through social progress and yes, through revelation. Turning the words of the Constitution or the Bible into gods themselves is rather a form of idol worship, ignoring the plain fact that the words themselves are but symbols of the actions of humankind.
Slaves to ideology
For example, both the Constitution and the Bible in their “original” forms share a common flaw in tolerance and promotion of human slavery. This single aspect when it comes to civil and spiritual rights is sufficient to call other notions of originalism and literalistic fundamentalism into question.
In the book of Exodus 21, the Bible sets for the following laws. We can therefore also imagine them as part of the United States Constitution, which when it was written and installed as the law of the land did not ban slavery.
Exodus 21: “There are the ordinances that you shall set before them: When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door of the doorpost; and his master shall pierce hs ear with an awl, and he shall serve him for life.”
A different time? Not so fast.
Certainly arguments could be made that slavery was perhaps, in some way, a different social institution then than it is now. But that would just be lying to ourselves about the egregious nature of slavery as a social institution in order to accommodate the anachronism of a literalistic ideology that cannot account for social change.
The Bible was plainly wrong to advocate slavery, and so was the US Constitution in its original and sustained enactments until the passage of the 13th Amendment that abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude. So neither the literalistic fundamentalism of the Bible or the United States Constitution can be trusted with complete abandon. It took nearly 100 years and thousands of lives to accomplish the human rights goal of banning slavery in America. It took another 40 years or so to give women the full rights of citizenship.
The lessons of Constitutional Amendments
No less than 27 Amendments have been ratified to the United States Constitution, including those protecting the right to bear arms, which was not guaranteed in the “original” Constitution but needed to be defined to create the “more perfect union” through a Bill of Rights and amendments designed to protect the natural rights of liberty and property. As a nation we have deigned through amendments to the Constitution to bring clarity to many issues that deserve full measure of understanding. We have also struggled with many of these issues even with greater definition through enactments of law such as those that affect separation of church and state, so strongly implied in our history as neither establishment of a national religion nor the right to practice religious freedom. Clearly the only preventative measure to uphold that span of rights is a separation of church and state. Yet so many refuse to acknowledge even that plain truth, so determined are they to impose their own religion on the masses. Those efforts, in turn, have produced an erosion of scientific understanding, humanistic approach to civil law, and egregious attempts to control and define the private rights of individuals in medical, social and personal terms, right down to the womb of a woman.
So despite the apparent aims of Constitutional “originalists” to drag America kicking and screaming back to a “literal” interpretation of the Constitution in which Supreme Court justices try to play mind reader or simply impose their own prejudicial will upon the nation on whatever issue they choose, there can be no such thing as originalism. It simply does not exist, did not exist when the Constitution was written, and later ratified, and so we should cease deceiving ourselves as a nation and quit trying to paint everything in our laws as “original” and/or black and white.
The same goes for literalistic fundamentalism, which bears part of the blame at least for the anachronistic mindset of a nation falling into intellectual ruin because 50% of its populace can’t make sense of metaphorical truth, not even when Jesus Christ himself was a teacher who made use of organic parables to convey spiritual truth.
Originalists and fundamentalists are lost in a maze of wishful thinking and backwards logic. Our Founding Fathers thought better of the Constitution to force it to lie there and play dead after it was written, and Jesus castigated the Pharisees and other teachers of the law for turning scripture into law. Neither is a legacy worth living, yet there are millions of people who believe they speak the truth without testing it against the wisdom of time and social change. That is a fatal flaw for any nation.