New House Speaker John Boehner. Attribution Some rights reserved by Flickr user House GOP Leader.

Constitution thumpers

Today, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts will swear in Rep. John Boehner (R.-Ohio) as the Speaker of the House. That's a routine gig for a Supreme Court chief justice, but yesterday's was unprecedented: on Boehner's request, Roberts also swore in the new Speaker's staff.

The staff oath began, "I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States," and one of Boehner's aides told Politico's Richard E. Cohen that the move would "underscore our commitment to listen to the American people and honor the Constitution." He also characterized the event as private, low-key and press-free.

In other words, it wasn't a big deal and it wasn't about PR--presumably the aide just ran into Cohen on the street and happened to mention this quiet little thing Boehner's staff would have done even if no one knew about it. As Cohen points out, employment forms for House aides already include a commitment to support the Constitution. So swearing an oath is redundant.

As a PR stunt, however, it fits rights into the larger Republican narrative of being the party that, unlike some people, is committed to the Constitution. For only the third time in history, the whole document will be read in the House chamber tomorrow. And as promised this fall in its "Pledge to America," the GOP leadership plans to require that every bill "cite its specific Constitutional Authority."

Capitalization abuse and all, this is great red meat for Tea Partiers, who are constitutionally obsessed with the Constitution--or more precisely, with the ideological position that the document's main purpose is to limit congressional power. That's about all this "the Constitution is back, and it's badass" approach (Garrett Epps's phrase) amounts to, because of course laws have to be constitutional. But how to interpret the Constitution? If the document were consistently straightforward, clear and specific, then we'd have far fewer 5-4 Supreme Court decisions.

Epps observes that when the Constitution is read aloud tomorrow, almost no one will be there to hear all of it; "instead, [members] are parceling it out among themselves clause by clause" to make the most of the photo ops. All oaths aside, politicians are generally less interested in the Constitution as a whole than in individual clauses or fragments, typically those that buttress specific arguments they want to make.

In the new Congress, two diametrically opposed bills might meet the new requirement by including the same conveniently vague part of the Constitution, or they might use different, more specifically relevant snippets--much like an action alert from a religious right group and one from a religious left group might each lead with a Bible verse but make the opposite argument. When sacred text is used as message icing on a substance cake that's already baked, we learn little about the text itself.

That's okay; not every conversation needs to be about the text. But to pretend that it's the subject at hand when it isn't is just silly pandering. So is implying that we'd all be clear as to what needs to be done if only we remembered to consult chapter and verse.

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Constitution Perverts

On the flipside of the "thumpers" are the perverts who wish to misinterpret, twist and distort the original intent, ideas and beliefs written in both the Constitution and the Bible.

The reading of the Constitution was a symbolic gesture which also sets an example for the American people to do their own reading of the document. "Thumpers" know from experience the best defense against the perverts view of the document taking hold is an informed public.

Reading the Constitution

From my perspective it was clearly show. (I heard the Speaker - new one - actually left the floor and held a press conference while the reading went on.)

If the Tea Party group wants to be serious about the Constitution, then they will need to read it and discuss it with other - not just their own kind. That might be the beginning of new discoveries for them.

They seem to be simply a group of people that talk among themselves and pat themselves on the back.
Their words are carefully chosen for presentation to the public - but who knows what the words mean. I am not convinced that they know themselves.

Hugh N. Blair -

Originalism and the Bible

Mr. Thorngate's article not only takes a sideswipe at the theory that the US Constitution's language has only one valid meaning but the wording of the last two paragraphs seem to also imply that there is no legitimate original meaning of the phrases contained within the Bible.

While I will agree that the US Constitution which not only originated from a human source but also originated from a group of delegates with diverse purposes in the phrases which they inserted may not have a single original legitimate meaning.

But for anyone who believes that the Bible originated with God and that the human writers frequently did not comprehend the meaning of the words they wrote nor the purposes of the foretellings included therein, the idea that there is not an original meaning should be viewed as blasphemous.

If Mr. Thorngate wished to assert that no human's (or group of humans) perception of scripture's meaning is infallible, I would emphatically agree. But the article seemed to imply that remembering to consult chapter and verse is futile. I will agree that remembering to CITE chapter and verse simply to corroborate a bias is futile. Possibly that is what Mr. Thorngate meant but then again maybe like the US Constitution, Mr. Thorngate's article means whatever the reader wants it to mean.

>>But the article seemed to

>>But the article seemed to imply that remembering to consult chapter and verse is futile.

Not at all futile, but neither does it clear up all confusion. My point is that the Bible, like the Constitution, doesn’t answer every question (or even most of them) in a specific and clear and undebatable way, so the suggestion that we’d all be on the same page if we just read the thing is silly.

Constitution Party

Clearly it is a PR stunt, but a smart one indeed. With an ever increasing tea party party type population clambering for a split in the GOP in favor of a Constitution Party, this is certainly a prudent move.

Our leaders should know the Constitution (both letter of the law and spirit of the law) forwards and back, seeing as it is the ultimate authority/law of the land. Will reading it out loud in Congress achieve this? Obviously no. It's more of a wink and a nod to those who believe the Constitution has been trampled on and left out in the rain. It is a shame that both parties have so politicized the court system to the point that we have liberal judges and conservative judges, but so it goes. I think the general population would also benefit from a study of the Constitution. It is misquoted badly, even by really "smart" people.

-Fred

The Constitution

"If the document were consistently straightforward, clear and specific, then we'd have far fewer 5-4 Supreme Court decisions."

We have many 5-4 decisions because we have exactly 8 ideologues on the court. The debate isn't really about whether the document is straightforward, but rather whether we should be interpreting it strictly today, and if it should be the final authority. Should we be considering the rulings of international judges? Is the constitution a living document? Are we more qualified today to understand how it applies to us today than the framers were 224 years ago? That's the debate.
Having read both the Bible and the constitution, I find the constitution to be much clearer in intent because it was written by fewer authors, in a shorter amount of time, and in my native language. The Bible is usually more specific though.

>>The debate isn't really

>>The debate isn't really about whether the document is straightforward, but rather whether we should be interpreting it strictly today, and if it should be the final authority. Should we be considering the rulings of international judges? Is the constitution a living document? Are we more qualified today to understand how it applies to us today than the framers were 224 years ago? That's the debate.

I’d say the debate is about all of the above, in sum, both about what the text actually says/means AND about how that should inform us now. You’re right that my passing reference to SCOTUS decisions reflects the latter more than the former--that was a bit sloppy on my part. But much debate generally is about parsing what exactly the text itself covers, perhaps most notably in the Bill of Rights but in the original text as well-e.g., just how far does the congressional mandate to “provide for the general welfare” via taxation go? And how to weigh this alongside other things--hence the cherry-picking problem I focused on in the post.

Also, it shouldn’t escape notice that the list of issues in the comment quoted above all parallel similar issues in biblical interpretation, even though, yes, there are some crucial differences between the two as well.

Constitutional Literalism

I've long said that "Strict Constructionism" is the same as "Biblical Literalism." Site chapter and verse of the Bible and of the Constitution -- no interpretation needed. But, even as biblical prooftexting is dangerous, so is Constittuional prooftexting.

But, if we're doing prooftexting, I think we need to remember that it's pretty clearly stated, chapter and verse, that there are no religious tests allowed! Article 6, par. 3

Bob Cornwall
http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com

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