Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Scripture and the Constitution

For some, this title might be redundant. Certainly I've spoken here about the troubling nature of US civil religion, although to be thoroughly en-captured by the church of america doesn't require a sacred attitude toward the Constitution, such an attitude can be a contributing factor.

I find it curious that the debates over interpretation look virtually identical whether one is speaking of the Christian scriptures or the US Constitution. I hope it gives everyone who works with both some pause to consider their assumptions. We can make some distinctions, of course - a conservative faith statement regarding scripture is that it contains "all things necessary to our salvation." That happens to be the statement made by my particular denomination - it affirms that scripture is complete and foundational, but it leaves some wiggle room for wrestling with interpretation.

Personally, I have some issue providing even that much credence to the US Constitution. Constitutions, in general, are fallible, incomplete documents. Just because ours has lasted longer than most others, doesn't, to me, prove it's got some inherent worthy beyond the paper its printed on. I struggle to say "it contains all things necessary to our continued governance," with the same meaning I might talk about scripture. I can't/won't assume it's going to have all the answers, if we just look hard enough.

For me, that would put it on an equal footing with the bible. I'm not real comfortable with that.

At the same time, this debate also helps me to critically question even that assumption of scripture. If documents, divinely inspired as they may be, contain the words and interpretation of people - can they really be relied upon to provide a complete foundation? There are certainly some who look to scripture as 98% reliable - as the best foundation human beings could possibly have for living, but perhaps not as perfect as some would like to believe.

Others, of course, see both the Christian scriptures and the US Constitution as good, historical writing, with more than some important for our lives today. They can be taken seriously without being taken too seriously.

There's at least five streams of interpretation here. There's a dictation theory - that the words, scriptural or constitutional are set in stone and must be taken at face value. There's a strict constructionalist - who wants to understand the original intent of the authors, to get behind the words and make sure the meaning has not been warped or misconstrued by the passage of time. There's also the pragmatist - who looks at these documents as guides, but guides to be weighed and critiqued based on the realities of the world in which they function; there's also the reverentialist, who gives such documents great credit and stature, but will ultimately deviate on some matters, reluctantly and with great turmoil.*

This seems to be the battle between conservative and liberal. Of course, the stricter one's interpretation the farther to left or right one draws a line. Those who believe the Bible was dictated by God couldn't hold even the most conservative interpretation valid if it deviated from their own position. "All things necessary to salvation" is the conservative position of my own denomination - The Church of the Nazarene - but we're often challenged as raging liberals, just as anyone who believes some part of the constitution might evolve over time is lambasted as liberal, no matter how they approach legal interpretation.

I say all this, obviously, because the US is in a big, ugly mess right now. In the midst of a tense election year we've got a Supreme Court vacancy, where one of the most conservative justices in history must be replaced. There are legitimate debates to have over whether eleven months is enough time to make selecting a replacement prudent (although I think the majority of those debates are fueled more by partisan loyalties than any logical pragmatism). At the same time, I want to caution especially Christians, but certainly anyone who takes this seriously to think about the rhetoric we use when engaging in these debates and those to follow about what kind of justice should be selected.

One does not have to hold the same understanding of constitutional interpretation as they do for scripture. I am certainly more conservative in my understanding of the bible than I am in my treatment of the constitution. Regardless of where you stand on what - these are not the same thing. As I said, treating (even subconsciously) the constitution as a sacred document is a surefire path to civil religion; it's a dangerous position for Christians to find themselves in - not a necessarily disastrous spot, but certainly a high-wire act of self-awareness.

We have to be mindful of the way in which we treat the constitution and our comfort in elevating it the level of scripture. That's important.

Secondly, we've also got to be mindful of the way we use terms like conservative and liberal. We can't define those terms based on our own perception of reality. It's perfectly acceptable to say "Bernie Sanders is more conservative than me," or "Ted Cruz is more liberal than me," but to label them conservative and liberal, respectively, is confusing the conversation.

We do the same thing when talking about our justices. Antonin Scalia was very conservative; although he didn't hold to the most conservative possible position on constitutional interpretation, he was about as far right as one can feasibly be and still function in the legal community. At the same time, he can't be the measure of "true conservatism," that's language to avoid. It's perfectly fine to draw the line of personal acceptability at Scalia, but to say this line also defines conservatism will only make dialog more difficult.

This is the same problem we have when some say, "believing in a seven day creation is the only truly conservative position" on biblical interpretation. The debate them becomes about the definition of conservatism (and thus gets personal, especially for self-styled conservatives who don't meet your standard) rather than the substances of actual positions.

I'm being long-winded as usual, but the real message here is to be careful how we talk to one other. Be careful not to draw lines of comfort around terms we want to keep for ourselves. This kind of tribalism may help us feel secure, but it's a recipe for strife and disaster. It leads us to places of generalization and demonization. Even the most conservative person cannot allow themselves to get to a place where they'll rail against a judicial nominee simply because of the President who makes the nomination. This is the real tragedy. If everything conservative is bad and everything liberal is good, then nothing matters but our own opinion and nobody can survive that fight.

The bible and the constitution aren't the same thing. It's ok to understand and interpret them the same way (I think that's a mistake, but you're certainly entitled to make it), but we can't combine the two. That spells disaster. We also can't define reality by own our understanding. We are necessarily communal people. We have to have relationships or we become something less than human. Having a relationship means giving permission for someone else to think differently - and that means giving up control of how we define people.

Let's let everyone speak for themselves, about actual opinions and beliefs without lumping them, or ourselves, into pre-formed categories whose worth we've already determined. I'm not sure either scripture or the constitution would look fondly on that, no matter how you interpret them.

*There's also another school of interpretation that essentially says these documents point to some larger truth and our interpretation of them is only an attempt to reach that higher plane of mystical understanding - whether it be defined as "Jesus," "God," "freedom," "natural law," "human dignity," "democracy" or anything else. Some might call this a middle position, but it's really off the spectrum and, while interesting, not quite relevant to my point in this, already overlong, piece.

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