Constitutionalism is not inerrantism.

by Steve Douglas

January 2nd, 2012 | 3 Comments

No one disputes the observation that most conservative American Christians are both inerrantists and believers in constitutional “strict constructionism”, i.e. the idea that if a given power was not enumerated or otherwise granted by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, it’s out of bounds for the U.S. Federal government. The clever parallel between the errors of inerrantism and constitutionalism seems to have first surfaced in the biblioblogosphere a couple of years ago and made ripples throughout many of the sites that I usually enjoy for their theologically unconservative Christian views. I’ve seen the comparison rediscovered and reasserted several times since, and it’s grated on my nerves long enough to get me to write about it.

English: Detail of Preamble to Constitution of...

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The first thing to point out is that believing that we should follow the Constitution as much as possible is not predicated on the belief that the Constitution is even approximately inerrant. What would it even mean to say the Constitution is “inerrant”, anyway? Most of the people who maintain that the Bible is inerrant mean primarily that the Bible does not err in matters of science, history, theology, and any presentations of facts. Now, can any of these expectations about the Bible be made to apply to the U.S. Constitution? Have you ever seen anyone try?

Taken that way, the inerrancy/constitutionalism argument is a sloppy criticism indeed, but the critics’ actual objection is not really as unreasonable as that. What they instead mean to imply is that neither the Bible nor the Constitution are infallible in their respective areas, and that inerrantists and constitutionalists believe against all the evidence that they are. The only thing that keeps this from being a completely laughable straw man is that there are indeed some constitutionalists, who indeed generally also happen to be inerrantist Christians, who talk as though the Constitution could not be improved upon in any way. There are certainly no fewer ignorant constitutionalists than there are among most political viewpoints, but even these would hardly say that criticism of the Constitution is out of bounds because of some mystical infallibility: rather, they’d say that criticism of the Constitution is automatically wrong-headed because the document was based on a sound political philosophy that they would be able to articulate even if the Constitution had never been written.

See, sniggering insinuations that constitutionalists believe the Constitution or its authors were endowed with something akin to divine inspiration is closely analogous to the preposterous idea that agreeing wholeheartedly with Why Evolution Is True is tantamount to believing in Jerry Coyne’s divine inspiration, when all it really takes is a decent, informed understanding of evolution to see that anyone who disagreed with the book’s broader points would be running afoul the scientific consensus undergirding the book. Many constitutionalists support adherence to the Constitution because they happen to think the principles are sound. Mocking the Constitution doesn’t knock down the political philosophy behind the Constitution, any more than refuting inerrancy logically refutes faith in God, of which the Bible is a fallible ancient expression. That actually leads me to perhaps the widest gulf between inerrancy and constitutionalism.

The constitutionalist’s “faith” in the Constitution is no more unreasonable than expecting any other law should be upheld or changed rather than merely ignored. Good laws, such as those against murder or theft, are meant to be universally applied. We suffer no loopholes or reading between the lines on those. Then there are tax codes: liberals, the chief skeptics in regard to constitutionalism, are the most likely to insist that every single person eligible to be taxed be required to contribute their fair share, and campaign to modify or repeal laws that don’t tax certain brackets in the proportion they see fit. The whole idea behind laws is that they do not suffer exceptions lightly: every possible exception must be codified in the wording, and every loophole must be closed or it will be exploited and the intent of the law thereby thwarted. If you understand this, you understand constitutionalism.

In fact, it’s not constitutionalists who make the U.S. Constitution out to be some sort of mystical exception: that’s actually done by those who have found it expedient to pretend that it, unlike every other “legal and binding” writ in jurisprudence, is a “living document” that is actually meant to be manipulated, conveniently misconstrued, and generally ignored.

And before you remind everyone, I am aware that Congress had compromised on these ideals before the first president’s first term was complete. This is a testament to the inadequacy of the Constitution as framed, and to the predilection of those in power for finding shortcuts to more power; but here again, this weakness doesn’t mean that we can allow politicians to proceed in running roughshod over “the supreme law of the land.” It means we need to patch up the holes a lot better. Here’s the thing: the Constitution never considers itself immutable, and neither do those who support it. But as with other imperfect or bad laws, you don’t ignore the flaws or come up with phony alternative interpretations of its meanings, like apologists who make the objectionable parts of the Bible into a holy allegory: you either amend it or you repeal it. If you think the Constitution should authorize the federal government to ensure that healthcare be free, or that abortions be illegal in all fifty states – whatever it is – you don’t corrupt the meaning of definite, established phrases in the Constitution to lend an air of legitimacy; you augment the powers of the federal government through the amendment process. Just as with any other law, exceptionlessness is a protection against the partiality and whims of demagoguery, the runaway ambitions of the political class, and power brokers who try to buy the federal government’s favor. To simply ignore the supreme law of the land when convenient is by definition lawlessness — and try to find a liberal who believes that anarchy is a good thing! Not having the powers of the federal government constrained by anything other than politicians’ imaginations is a sure way to maintain an oligarchy, which is essentially what we have now.

Please don’t dismiss me as a blind constitutionalist or a political conservative. I am neither. I used to have a higher opinion of the Constitution than I do now. I was taught by political and religious conservatives that although it’s not perfect, it’s the best thing free people have come up with in quite a long time, and maybe ever. I now think that’s an overstatement,  and I can point out several flaws without even trying very hard. Maybe the Constitution is entirely inadequate and awful, that the form of government it was intended to establish and perpetuate is useless for today’s world. Maybe what we need is more centralization of power rather than the checks and balances on national powers to preserve local, subsidiarian governments as intended by the Constitutional Convention. Maybe so. We can talk about that. But please don’t pretend that demanding that the federal government take no more power for itself than was set aside for it by the law written to establish it is somehow completely looney and absolutely necessary for reasonable people to dismiss. And still more, be intellectually honest enough to admit that insisting on laws having definite meaning that should not be ignored by the whims of the current majority is in any way related to believing that the Bible contains no errors.

The simultaneous popularity of inerrancy and strict constructionism among conservative Americans is mostly coincidental, with the exception that conservatives think that both ideas are worth conserving. Then again, given that there are plenty of things that even liberals want to conserve, that exception does not make the comparison of constitutionalism and inerrantism useful for anything but a cheap shot.

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January 2nd, 2012

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  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    Steve,

    Thanks for being willing to identify and address this false pairing.

    I have thought about what leads people to make and promote such false comparisons.  The blogosphere has helped me realize how much spokesmen for Christ combine their spiritual worldview with their political worldview into one seamless overall view.  Thus on the left we have, for example, a Jim Wallis and a Brian McLaren while on the right we have, for example, a James Dobson and a Franklin Graham.  The views of each of these four men are predictable in both the spiritual and political realms – and people, depending on their own social identity, tend to praise two of them and condemn the other two.  This combination of spiritual and political views strikes me as most unfortunate as it tends to dilute the interests of Christ with worldly interests.

    I don’t see why a political conservative couldn’t be just as interested in helping the poor as Jim Wallis, or why a political liberal couldn’t be just as interested in the reliability of God’s word for families as James Dobson – yet social identity boundaries seem to either obscure or inhibit such “anomalies.”

    You yourself are an example of such an “exception.”  Because you eschew biblical inerrancy but embrace constitutional government, you “break the pattern” and tend to be considered “a voice in the wilderness,” if not ignored outright.  I wish it were not so.  Yet, until more individuals start thinking independently and courageously, they will continue to be conformed to the image of social identities rather than to the image of Christ.  

    Would that more of us lived for the approval of Christ than the approval of human beings. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/dthatcher7 David Thatcher

    What gives the current crop of “constitutionalists” is a bad name is that they are using the “it’s not constitutional” argument to block everything the opposing party wants to do.
    Boiling all of this down even further, most of what these “consitutionalists” complain about are initiatives that rely on a broad understanding of the “interstate commerce clause”. Unfortunately for conservatives, the “interstate commerce clause” has been interpreted broadly by the courts ever since the New Deal. So unless you want to roll back 80 years of jurisprudence and completely dismantle every last vestige of the New Deal (which Republicans have wanted to do for a long time), you have to accept that our nation has evolved on this point.
    Lastly, the current bout of “constitutionalism” and “inerrancy” are quite linked, although indirectly, through literalism. Literalist interpretations require inerrancy.

    • http://undeception.com/ Steve Douglas

      Hi David,

      Because this isn’t really supposed to be a post arguing for specific politics beyond the inerrancy/constitutionalism comparison, I’m not going to get into a debate about repealing all New Deal era legislation. But I will say that slowly, selectively overturning faulty prior judgments is far from an unreasonable goal (Dred Scott, anyone?). And there’s no law against evolution recapitulating advantageous traits lost over time.

      Literalist interpretations require inerrancy.

      No, I address this in the post. “Literalistic” is a derogatory term used to refer to something that shouldn’t be literal; but as I pointed out, legal texts are always quite literal. Everyone recognizes the necessity for this. Otherwise you wouldn’t need a separate law against theft of ideas (IP) when a law against theft of material goods could be interpreted metaphorically. On the extreme end, someone could try to charge someone else with breaking a law against killing because, well, “He killed my soul!” Silly, huh? But that’s because we know that laws are supposed to be specific and literal (not “literalistic”). And in the case where the purpose of the document is to enumerate specific powers, the remainder of which were to be “reserved for the people”, it’s nonsense to suppose that the legal wording is anything other than explicit. As I said, only those who wish to treat the legal text as something other than literal and explicit are doing anything mystic with it.