A few days ago I wrote that the Tea Baggers seem to live in an alternate reality. And today, I'm pleased to announce that I figured out why.
The Tea Party's alternate reality arises from the Doctrine of Constitutional Inerrancy, the belief that the United States Constitution is perfect and its authors are practically saints.
My "Aha!" moment came when I realized that Constitutional Inerrancy is a side effect of a belief in Biblical Inerrancy, the idea that the Bible is God's literal word, perfect in every way. The Tea Party has apparently extended that hollow philosophy to our Constitution and its authors. It's a new quasi-religion.
It's no surprise that these two beliefs go together. Willingness to accept authority and take things on faith isn't restricted to one area of life. The ability to take something on faith and reject reason has to be deeply ingrained. This way of thinking permeates a person's life. In addition to accepting the Bible and God's word without question, a person who thinks this way will accept all sorts of other things on faith, just because of the say-so of an authority figure.
So imagine you're conversing with a creationist who believes God wrote the Bible a couple thousand years ago and that the Bible is perfect in every way. When you ask this person hard questions like why evil exists in the world, or point out that the Bible has lots of errors and contradictions, he answers, "God works in mysterious ways," or, "Faith is stronger than reason," or "It's not your place to question God."
Would it surprise you to find out that this person had similar attitudes toward the Founding Fathers and their "bible," the United States Constitution? That they considered the Bible inerrant and unchangeable?
It's as natural as breathing to them. They learned from an early age to worship an authority figure whose wisdom is absolute and unquestionable. They learned that the Bible is God's own words and contains no errors. There is no room for challenges, no thought that there could be mistakes. So it's perfectly natural for them to "project" these same attitudes into other parts of their lives, to yield their reasoning powers to a higher power. They were taught early and taught well to accept things on faith and authority.
If you told me, "Hey, here's our new Constitution, it is perfect in every way," the first thing I'd say is, "I'll have a look and get back to you on that." I was taught that we're all supposed to think for ourselves, and that nobody is perfect. The idea that someone could write a set of laws that would serve our country forever, without alteration or even new interpretations, strikes me as laughable.
My respect for and reverence of the Constitution is because I've studied it a bit, and I find it to be a remarkable document. It needs no authority to prop it up – it can stand on its own. The United States Constitution is one of the greatest documents to ever spring from human minds. But I don't say that because of any reverence for the authors. I say it because that is my opinion.
So the Tea Baggers and I agree on the foundation: The Constitution is an amazing document, and it is the law of our land.
But that's where we part ways. They want to treat it as a static, dead document. They want us to keep the exact same interpretation as the framers had when they wrote it and the state representatives had when they endorsed it. And never mind that two and half centuries have passed and that society is changing.
Just to illustrate what this really means, did you know that the right to free speech isn't guaranteed? The constitution actually says Congress shall make no law abridging free speech, but says nothing about the states. The Fourteenth Amendment was eventually interpreted to extend First Amendment guarantees to the states, but it's only because of a non-literal reading of the amendment.
I believe that this reinterpretation of the founders' intent is what they would have done if they were alive today and could sit on the bench. But if you review the history of this reinterpretation, you'll see that there were plenty of opponents, the Tea Party's spiritual predecessors who wanted the Constitution to stay frozen, to be interpreted literally.
In the Tea Party's world, it's still the late eighteenth century. If you want to understand the Constitution, you have to pretend that there are no computers to track us, no internet for spying, no AIDS, only white males can vote, there are no spy satellites, slavery is still legal, and it takes a month for a warship to cross the ocean to do battle.
It's no wonder that the Tea Party lives in an alternate reality.