Chasing a few rabbits over the past few weeks, it came to my attention that some serious debates have taken place on how the Constitution of the United States should be read. These debates, in some ways, parallel some of what I have heard and read about how the Bible should be read.
Only recently have I pulled my head out of a hole in the ground to realize that a debate relating to how the Constitution of the United States should be read is escalating. One side of the debate contends for “originalism.” The other side argues for “transformative purpose.”
Edwin Meese said that Americans “pride ourselves on having produced the greatest political wonder of the world—a government of laws and not of men.” He quoted Thomas Paine, who said, “America has no monarch: Here the law is king.” General Meese said,
This emphasis on the rule of law is central to originalism. Originalists believe that the written constitution is our fundamental law and that it binds all of us—even Supreme Court justices. Those justices who abandon the original meaning of the text of the Constitution invariably end up substituting their own political philosophies for those of the framers. We Americans have to decide whether we want a government of laws or one of judges. Is the constitutional text going to bind the Supreme court, or will the justices in essence write and rewrite the text?” (Originalism: A Quarter-Century of Debate, by Steven G. Calabresi).
Justice Brennan, in response to General Meese’s remarks, characterized his attitude toward reading the Constitution as a “little more than arrogance cloaked as humility.” He believed it was arrogant to assume that we in today’s world could know how the Framers would apply the moral-philosophic natural law principles he thought they wrote into the Constitution to late twentieth century problems. Justice Brennan said,
We current Justices read the Constitution in the only way we can: as twentieth-century Americans. We look to the history of the time of framing and to the intervening history of interpretation. But the ultimate question must be, what do the words of the text mean in our time? For the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs” (ibid).
The late Justice Antonin Scalia took exception to how Justice Brennan believes the Constitution should be read. He wrote,
The whole point of having a constitution or a bill of rights in the first place is to memorialize and entrench certain fundamental rights so they can prevail in moments of passion when a crazed mob might want to cast them aside.
I hope I have provided enough from both perspectives for you to understand the nature of the Constitutional debate. It reminds me of something else that has recently been brought to my attention, which is the sharp division that exists among Muslims today and its roots in how each group reads the Koran. Those who read it “literally” make up several terrorist groups in the world today.
People read the Bible in two different ways. Some read it more like Justice Brennan reads the Constitution, as a good set of general guidelines. Others read it as the rule and limit of their faith.
I find it interesting that reading the Bible, the whole Bible, in the way it was intended to be read leads to life and justice, to a life of virtue. But reading the Koran the way the terrorists read it, leads to the attempted conquest of nations and the death of unbelievers. How one reads the Constitution of the United States has been hotly debated, and forms the substance of grave concerns over the potential appointment of several new Justices to the Supreme Court in the near future.
How all three of these documents are read makes a huge difference.