Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Biblical and Constitutional Inerrancy: Why the Tea Party is so Crazy

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.


  1. Great post, and I mostly agree with you. The idea that there is a "truth" and that through some authority it is revealed to us seems a hallmark of both religious and political zealots. However, when you write that "Constitutional Inerrancy is a side effect of a belief in Biblical Inerrancy" I actually think you're slightly off. I don't believe that what you call Constitutional Inerrancy descends from Biblical Inerrancy, but rather that both are symptoms of some greater overriding world view. One that willfully ignores the very real progression in logic and reason that has occurred over the centuries in favor of a far more simple faith that makes their intellectual lives, in many ways, easier.

    The irony of this of course is that, at least in their political views (and I suspect even in their religious views), they are deferring to faith by citing the writings and views of men who rejected such similarly lazy thinking outright. As you say, "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." And I believe it would have struck the founders as laughable too. These were, as you know, mostly progressive folks; and were very much men of the Enlightenment. That the Tea Party ignores this actual truth in favor of their own static interpretation is a point of view I would find sad if I didn't think it so dangerous.

    In fact, what I see as the main connection between the two inerrancies is the willingness to rely on "interpretations" of their founding documents that are not only centuries old, but also decidedly incorrect. Christians these days aren't practitioners of "Christianity" in the classical sense detailed in the bible, and the Tea Party followers of today are about as far removed from the actual views of the founders as they can get without having to remove themselves from the debate completely. Both groups, which as you correctly point out are often the same group, ignore everything that doesn't fit with their view of the world - including most of the documents that they profess to want to follow inerrantly in the first place.

  2. Michael – thanks for your comments, they're very thought provoking.

    I sort of disagree with you on this point: "I don't believe that what you call Constitutional Inerrancy descends from Biblical Inerrancy, but rather that both are symptoms of some greater overriding world view." It's not that I disagree, but rather that I didn't explain my main thesis well enough.

    The key is "some overriding world view." In order to teach a child that the Bible is inerrant and to retain such beliefs into adulthood, you have to instill the very world view you're talking about into the child. So while the acceptance of Biblical Inerrancy is, as you say, a side effect or symptom of this underlying world view, they're not separate. It is the need to teach Biblical Inerrancy that motivates parents and churches to instill this world view into children in the first place.

    Once instilled, it becomes the foundation for them to accept other authoritarian claims without question, for example, Constitutional Inerrancy.

    I wrote a closely-related blog a while back that you might enjoy. You'll see the relevance starting about half way down:


  3. I think I better understand your position now, and I agree with you. I had a feeling we were mostly on the same page. I quite enjoyed your other post as well. Thanks for that.

  4. I'm not sure I can agree with this, given the sheer amount of changes teabaggers want to make to the Constitution. Even if you forget the Amendments of which they dislike at least parts of 5 by my count, I think we can agree they don't approve of Article 6 if you happen to be a Muslim or atheist.

  5. Dennis -- Maybe they see all of the amendments, maybe with the exception of the Bill of Rights since it was passed immediately, as nothing more than a corruption of the original gospel.


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