THE CONSECRATION OF THE U.S. CONSTITUTION
by Leonard Hitchcock
In the opinion pages of this newspaper, and in the right-wing media, it is now common to hear the U.S. Constitution spoken of as a document somehow anointed by God and therefore meriting a reverence that precludes interpretation, revision or criticism. This portrayal of the Constitution is used to attack the liberal view that the Constitution is a “living document” that must be evaluated in light of contemporary circumstances and societal opinion. It is a portrayal whose rhetorical effectiveness depends upon its ability to appropriate and manipulate religious beliefs in the service of a political viewpoint.
Fundamentalist Christians seem particularly susceptible to this rhetorical tactic. The nature of their religious convictions suggests that they have a deep-seated intolerance of uncertainty and a craving for unimpeachable authority. They value unquestioning faith and unwavering commitment, and they have a tendency to see God as a causal agent in everyday life. It’s hardly surprising that they are receptive to political positions that offer absolute assurance of truth, and the opportunity to engage in what they are led to believe is a holy cause. They welcome the news that the Constitution is not just another political theory, but rather a revelation of how God wishes us to lead our political lives. They are favorably disposed to the view that God had a hand in creating the Constitution, and that, just as in the case of the Bible, God’s word must be taken literally, not as interpreted by “experts” like Supreme Court justices.
Because persuading the religious right that political issues are really religious ones is not too difficult, politicians and pundits of all stripes, whether believers or not, are adept at the manipulation of the faithful. There are, of course, some ranters on the right who actually believe their own diatribes; who believe that the Constitution, a document written amid controversy and compromise by a group of deists imbued with the principles of 18th century political philosophy, is supernaturally sanctified and the touchstone of political wisdom for all times and peoples. They believe this, despite the fact that it is nonsense.
Few political ideas in the Constitution were new: the division of authority, the balance of powers, republicanism, due process, the rights of man – all had already been thought of. The Constitution does not establish a demonstrably better form of government than, say, the parliamentary system, and it has evident flaws, which political scientists have pointed out (see, e.g., Levinson, Our Undemocratic Constitution). The founders were no more prescient about the future of the country than one might expect intelligent men to be. They knew that changing times would necessitate alterations in their document; that’s why they provided a means to amend it. The fact that there have now been 27 amendments suggests just how imperfect the original document was (and to what extent, as it now stands, it represents not just the wisdom of the founders, but that of the American people.) Finally, the founders made it abundantly clear that the political and religious realms must be completely independent. There is hardly a more egregious violation of that principle than the claim that the Christian God ghostwrote the Constitution.
Today’s most conspicuous, and perhaps sincere, advocate for the Constitution’s Biblical stature is Glenn Beck. Beck, a Mormon convert, shares his sect’s inclination to deify the Constitution and has championed the writings of W. Cleon Skousen, a fellow Mormon who was such as extreme conservative that even his church disavowed his views. Skousen was a professional anti-Communist and lecturer for the John Birch Society and founded an organization that is known today as the National Center for Constitutional Studies. The NCCS holds seminars on the Constitution with which many Idahoans and Utahans are familiar, and currently has offices in Mesa, Arizona and Malta, Idaho. Skousen’s book, The Making of America is a text for such seminars, and stresses God’s role in the shaping of America.
The essential message of the leaders of the ultra-right to their followers is this: “All you really need to know about politics you learned in Sunday school. You don’t need to know about foreign relations, you don’t need to understand economics, you don’t need to study the opinions of the experts. Politics is simple: it’s about liberty; it’s about hating it when people boss you around, it’s about knowing right from wrong. So: go with your gut, believe in your anger, and trust in your faith. And if you have any questions about what a good Christian should think about states’ rights, or gay marriage, or the commerce clause, just ask us. We know what God wants.”
(This opinion piece ran in the Idaho State Journal and is reprinted here with the generous permission of the author.)