Interpreting the Sacred Civil Text

This is too good to pass up. The public and reverential reading of the U.S. Constitution on the floor of the House of Representatives provoked comparisons to the reading of Scripture in public worship and differences over how to interpret the text of both documents. And the Washington Post picked it up in “Reading Between Constitution’s Lines” (Jan. 5, 2011).

“They are reading it like a sacred text,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the outgoing chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties, who has studied and memorized the Constitution with talmudic intensity.

Nadler called the “ritualistic reading” on the floor “total nonsense” and “propaganda” intended to claim the document for Republicans. “You read the Torah, you read the Bible, you build a worship service around it,” said Nadler, who argued that the Founders were not “demigods” and that the document’s need for amendments to abolish slavery and other injustices showed it was “highly imperfect.” “You are not supposed to worship your constitution. You are supposed to govern your government by it,” he said.

Nadler represents a convoluted section of Brooklyn and, crossing the East River, part of lower Manhattan as well (a classically Gerrymandered district).

They get a quote from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) whom the author, Jason Horowitz, calls an “exalter of the Constitution.”

“It’s not on the same level as a sacred text that God would hand down to the faithful,” said Bachmann, specifying the the document was “secular” and intended to provide parameters for the branches of government. But, she added, religious inspiration had a role in the document’s drafting. “Those who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were themselves devout individuals – primarily in their Christian faith,” she said, arguing that the product was “reflective of their sincerely held beliefs.”

Jason is clearly skeptical.

And the academic chime in too.

“It has an immediate and obvious parallel to how you interpret the Bible,” said Noah Feldman, a law professor and constitutional scholar at Harvard.

“The Constitution is seen as both the source and the product of God’s blessing on the United States,” said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist and adviser to the Pew Forum’s surveys on religion in politics. “Reading and invoking the Constitution is part of a public ritual that makes up the civil religion.”

Bruce Ackerman, a Sterling professor of law and political science at Yale, expressed a different view about the motivating spirit of the Founders. “They are steeped in Enlightenment classical culture. They want a reestablishment of Republicanism through acts of reason,” he said. “This is deeply inconsistent with the rote reading of a text as if it were handed down from Mount Sinai.”

It is no accident that Democrats tend to have a creative and “living” approach to the interetation of both the Bible and the Constitution, whereas Republicans are stricter and more historical on both.

D.C. Innes, assoc. prof. of politics, The King’s College, New York City.

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