The Most Important Thing the Bible and the Constitution Have in Common Is Their Usefulness

One document is over 2,000 years old and the other over 200. That means it’s even more difficult for historians to determine the original intent of the Biblical authors than it is for that of the writers of the newer US Constitution.

One was compiled over thousands of years in various cultures by numerous writers while the other was written by a much smaller group of men over less than a year. So though there were disagreements among the Constitution’s authors, unlike the Biblical authors there were opportunities in the Constitutional convention to sit down together and work out compromises for the differing positions of its composers.

One is full of references to a god among gods, while the other has none at all - and merely two references to “religion” (counting the first amendment to it). That means they have differing intentions.

One’s authority is claimed and enforced by religious institutions and their hoary traditions while the other is enforced by legal and political ones. Any idealistic sense of authority the two have is due to the power of the institutions that revere, interpret, pass on, and enforce them.

But what these two do have in common results from the fact that there are people who treat them as “sacred” (highly valued and set apart). They’re both usually treated differently in nature than the many other human compositions that might be considered interesting, thoughtful, and insightful but not special enough to somehow be normative.

They’re both even at times considered somehow inerrant. For the Bible that might be because some believe their god was in some way its author, and for the Constitution that might be because followers credit the founders with some almost super-human wisdom.

It’s not that there’s anything historians can identify as inherently “sacred” in these works themselves. There are other books in other religions and nations that are considered “sacred” by people who ignore the Bible or the U.S. Constitution.

To more objective historians all these writings were written by human beings who were pretty much like the rest of us. To claim otherwise is to go beyond the evidence in and around those texts no matter how inspiring any work might be.

It’s the way people treat the Bible and US Constitution, then, that sets them apart from the majority of writings that are considered “profane” in contrast - profane in the sense of the non-special, the ordinary, the mere human attempts at the expression and suggestion of ideas for possible consideration. That treatment of them as sacred consists in how they get used to give authority to peoples’ beliefs, prejudices, and opinions.

Without being able to claim that one’s ideas are those of some greater (“sacred”) authority, personal ideas are merely some among the numerous possible human choices. They have little significance when compared with any other views.

Generally, personal ideas could only be bolstered using reason and evidence for support. But the arguments citing either document as "sacred" aren’t about what evidence supports them at all. They are asserting moral opinions, claims not just made about what is or has been but about how things should be.

Moral claims are debatable and debated. To agree with another’s morality, one must agree on the validity of the source of the claim that makes it more than just one person’s opinion. And thinkers East and West for millennia have been trying to win agreement on some basis for what that source should be.

Those who reject any of the world’s scriptures find no basis for ethics in those scriptures. People of different nations might find US constitutional concepts historically interesting but not necessarily any paradigm for their own ideas of legality and government.

Because they’re considered “sacred,” these texts get picked over, studied, and interpreted by those who elevate them above normal books in order to support the claims, beliefs, ideas, and prejudices those who do this hold, usually ideas they bring to the texts from the surrounding culture.

People pick and choose from these works as if these writings are smorgasbords. They ignore some parts and emphasize others, interpret them through their pre-conceived ideas of what is true and right, and hide behind and blame them so as to take the burden of blame for personal opinions off themselves.

Then they hope to use the “support” they find in them to enforce their beliefs on others. Attempts to enforce some sectarian “Biblical” morality have even infiltrated Supreme Court arguments about what is constitutional.

But when someone says that the Bible is against something like same-sex marriage (or you name it) or that the Constitution is, they’re using either or both texts to say:

“I wouldn’t be against it, but this sacred document is. So, I’ve got to be against it since I’m on the side of the sacred and those who disagree with me aren’t. It’s not my fault. It’s not just my whim or prejudice here. Don’t blame me. I’m a nice guy. I’m just the messenger. You have a problem with that sacred book.”

Both “sacred” writings, then, are useful for placing the blame elsewhere. And, to the extent that the claimant actually believes what they’re saying, they’re useful for saving the claimant from examining their own issues and prejudices. It’s very much like the claim of irresponsibility when the offensive drunk says: “The alcohol made me do it.”

Those who use the Bible this way often respond to disagreements from others by saying that they are not interpreting the text in terms of their circumstances. They claim to be taking the text literally – a clearly false claim since no one does; and any such claim should not remain unquestioned.

They might really believe that they are literalists when confronted by people who say they understand the Bible differently. These people do not want to admit that they are also interpreting a text.

Likewise, people who use the Constitution this way often respond to disagreements by calling themselves “originalists.” This too is a dubious claim as Supreme Court scholar and legal realist Eric Segal has argued for almost two decades.

“Originalism” portrays itself as a sophisticated philosophy to act as if whatever those Supreme Court justices want to decide is based on something larger than themselves – some “original” meaning of those super-wise founding fathers that should have more authority than the claimants' opinions would alone if they admitted that they were just making answers up to support their politics and egos.

In the same way as people approach the Bible, people use the Constitution. They talk about "originalism" but are unlikely to practice it. Segal argues in a recent book, then, that we should actually understand Originalism as Faith.

So, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking otherwise. A document that someone treats as “sacred” is a very useful document and, frankly, seldom the actual source of the moral admonitions its user claims should be imposed on the rest of us.

It’s more an excuse to promote someone’s views than a reason for them.


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