Constitutional Conservative? Oldest Trick in the Book

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Volunteers help roll up a banner printed with the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution during a demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial against the Supreme Court's ruling which overturned the McCain-Feingold law barring corporations and unions from paying for political ads made independently of candidate campaigns.

If you've been paying attention since 1788 or so, it probably doesn't come as a surprise that the U.S. is a constitutional republic. That is widely agreed to be a very good thing. Great Britain has a constitution too, but it's famously unwritten, which has always seemed a little lazy. It's hard to determine the intent of the framers if the framers themselves couldn't be bothered to take notes.

The U.S., however has a written constitution, and even from the start, it was a dandy — fancy calligraphy, elegant prose and an extraordinary facility for packing a lot of substance into a teeny, tiny clause. Those First Amendment freedoms we start learning about in grammar school — speech, press, religion, assembly? Forty-five words was all it took to guarantee them. It's no wonder so many young democracies have modeled their constitutions after ours, and no wonder we've spent the past two-plus centuries bragging that we figured a lot of this stuff out first.

That's what made it such a surprise in the mercifully just-ended midterm elections when so many candidates from the left and the right (but really, mostly the right) seemed to have discovered that, hey! We have a constitution, and hey, I'm in favor of it!

Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann wants weekly Constitution classes to be conducted for members of Congress. Texas Governor Rick Perry warns that even fellow Republicans had "better get back to the principles of the Constitution." The GOP's Pledge to America — its campaign sequel to 1994's Contract With America — includes a promise that all laws passed by Congress will include a clause specifying what part of the Constitution authorizes them. (Hint: How about Article 1, Section 8, which begins with the words "The Congress shall have power to..." and then pretty much gives you the whole list.)

But never mind. In many ways, the discovery of the Constitution in the 2010 election was essentially the same as the discovery of the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1988 election or loyalty oaths during the Red Scare of the 1950s. They're all ways of separating the virtuous from the dangerous, the true Americans from the lesser Americans, my good ideas from your suspect ones. But the Constitutional frenzy has deeper roots too — ones that stretch far back into humanity's high regard for anything we put on paper.

Groups of people come together around shared ideas, but ideas can be vague and inconveniently imprecise. Better to write everything down so we're all, literally, on the same page. It's why clubs have charters, parties have platforms and companies have mission statements. It's also why religions have sacred texts. The Bible, the Koran, the Torah don't just tell the story of their faiths, but also serve as spiritual rulebooks. These are the central pillars of our beliefs; if you want to join us, you'll adopt them too. A constitution's purposes are essentially the same.

Of course, just writing stuff down doesn't mean we'll always agree on what the words mean, and that's where mischief can be made. If you're of a mind to be a leader of your people — particularly if you have to fight for the position — what better argument can you make than that the sacred text would be safer in your hands than in anyone else's, because you understand it better than anyone else?

Religious groups find this easier to claim than political parties do because questions of faith touch people on a far deeper level than questions of public policy. In both cases though, inflexible readings of what might otherwise be flexible texts are a powerful way of rousing and rallying your base.

"Fundamentalism in the U.S. arose in the early 1900s and it was very much a border-drawing device," says Harvey Cox, research professor of divinity at Harvard University. "The idea was that these are the fundamentals, these are the core beliefs you must hold or you are not a Christian. Very key to the fundamentals was the inerrancy of Scripture. You were in or you were out on that one."

At around the same time Protestants were teaching inerrancy, Cox says, Catholics were introducing the idea of Papal infallibility. In both cases, it was certainty the believers were after, and in both cases, that cleaving to something doctrinally immutable came during a period of global and religious change.

Things get a lot messier when political and religious movements mix, with literal readings of sacred texts often serving as handy — sometimes bloody — cudgels with which to attack your opponents. Clearly, this is too often true among Islamist fundamentalists, who will brook no other reading of the Koran than their own — and impose deadly penalties on those who disagree.

Inerrancy in the Islamic or milder Protestant sense has never gained quite the same traction in the Jewish religion, but Cox does point to how it can be used as an expedient when it serves a political end — most notably in recent years in debates about settlements in the West Bank. "It becomes about the promise of the land," Cox says. "[Settlers are] sometimes called land fundamentalists and they'll show you text in the Book of Joshua that says 'conquer and settle.'"

The Constitution certainly can't claim the long history and global sweep of the great religious texts and in some ways that makes heartfelt assertions of its infallibility even more suspect — especially when they tend to occur in even-numbered years. What's more, the Constitution's very brevity makes it particularly intolerant of any sort of I-know-best absolutism. Instead, it invites — practically mandates — debate and reinterpretation, making the idea of Constitutional originalism a near-oxymoron. "The culture," Cox laments, "[has] seemed to go numb to the tone and resonance and other ways of reading the text."

American politicians indulge the sacred text impulse at the peril of both their country and their credibility. The nation's founding laws are meant to be thrashed out and argued over, to be entrusted to a fractious citizenry as well as to all three branches of government, each of which can do its part to adapt the document to the times and to make sure that the other branches don't overadapt it. None of this wonderful elasticity should be news to the Bachmanns and the Perrys and their ilk. They can read all about it — in the Constitution.