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

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

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.

Steve Thorngate

The Century managing editor is also a church musician and songwriter.

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