I’ve heard it said that the Constitution is America’s Bible. I have to admit it has a nice ring to it. Certainly, it can’t be argued that the founding document of the USA is held in high regard—revered even, in the same way that devout Christians look to the Bible.
Further, the constitution is often cited as an absolute, just like the Bible. “That’s my constitutional right…” you might hear someone declare, with the same self-righteous cadence one might declare that “it’s the word of God”. The speakers in both examples inevitably mean the same thing: There’s no use debating it.
I’ve come to suspect however that the colloquial turn of phrase doesn’t mean quite what I might’ve assumed. When people say that the Constitution is America’s Bible, they’re often referring to perceptions similar to those mentioned above. It may be that they see the Constitution as irrefutable, absolute, or beyond reproach. Further, there are some who use the phrase to expound on the Biblical inspirations for the Constitution (Source)—which serves of course only to solidify the former perception.
But those aren’t the sort of notions that brought the phrase to my mind the other day, and they’re certainly not the ideas that have followed from that initial reflection—terribly far from it in fact.
It’s not that I disagree with the comparison. To the contrary—the quote occurred to me quite independently, a natural extension of a concern I’ve been harbouring for a while, and which comes to light again and again whenever I read a news article in which the Constitution is invoked to cease all further debate.
The Constitution, it’s true, is America’s Bible—but not in the way they mean.
The Constitution, written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, lays out the fundamental principles of the USA as envisaged by the founding fathers—and is the de facto final source of relevance when it comes to all things Americana.
The Bible is similar. Of course, that depends on what we’re talking about exactly, but for the purposes of this article, any Holy Book will do really. If we’re talking about the Christian Bible, the New Testament was written around 2000 years ago, and the Old Testament approximately 3500 years ago. The Quran is estimated to be around 1358 years old. Still, much like the constitution, each serve their own role as the final word—the irrefutable truth in all related matters.
Absolutism is dangerous in even the most light-hearted issues, and especially so when the stakes involve the governing of a country or ruling of a faith. Countless wars have started on grounds justifiable, and even necessary, according to the laws of holy books, and no less so for those in the constitution.
But that’s not all they have in common. Whether 3500 years old like the Old Testament (also called the Pentateuch or the Torah), or a mere 226 years old like the constitution of America (successfully amended only 27 times—of which the first 10 compose the Bill of Rights, and were written only a year after the original document), these are, at best, historical documents.
When considering the merits of any historical document, and especially in evaluating its relevance for modern understanding, we must consider a number of key factors. Firstly, being historical documents, context is an important consideration when making any attempt to apply their instructions in a contemporary setting.
Meanings change, as do the circumstances which might at one time necessitate a law, and at others render it counterproductive. In the case of the Bible or other Holy Books, one key problem is translation. Over the long stretch of time it’s existed, countless translations have occurred to bring it to its current state. What depth of meaning might have been lost in these translations is hard to say—especially when weighed alongside the vastly different political and social environment of its original writing.
It’s a difficult knot to untie, but whether it’s a matter of translation or social context, there exists a slew of Biblical rules which we can surely agree fail to fit our expectations of divine leadership in the present age. The Bible forbids the crossbreeding of cattle, requires death to both partners in an adulterous relationship, suggests the burning of prostitutes and stoning of unchaste daughters, forbids the eating of pork, of mixing fabrics, and even calls for death to children who disrespect their parents. A harsh set of rules—but arguably conceived of and considered sensible in such entirely different times.
But times change, and so too should our reverence for works which are so inseparably tied to their own era.
The constitution is little different. In terms of language and context, one of the most obvious examples is the infamous second amendment. This key piece of the bill of rights (Ratified in 1791) protects the rights of citizens to keep and bear arms. Specifically, it’s intended as a protection of citizens against their government, in order to allow for the raising of a people’s militia. However that legislation is now 223 years old, and at the very least, the meaning of a word like ‘arms’ has changed along with the technology which it describes.
Currently, debate is waged constantly over the intentions and effective modern interpretations of this amendment, as school shootings and death by gunfire run rampant in the USA.
But these documents present another dangerous precedent unrelated to historical context or accidental mistranslation. When any creed is treated as absolute, it becomes an indefatigable trump card against any set of actions acting contrary to the interpreter’s agenda. The very nature of interpretation is malleable, and thus any issue may easily be shoe-horned into its speculated intentions. This is intentional misinterpretation, and is an especially prominent issue right now with the American Constitution.
The passing of Citizens United (Link), a case of constitutional law which used an intentionally flawed interpretation of the Constitution, ultimately made two incredibly damning determinations. Firstly, in the eyes of the law, a Corporation is considered to be interchangeable with a human being. Secondly, the spending of money in a political campaign is protected as a form of free speech (the protection of which is guaranteed by the first amendment to the Constitution).
This legislation has directly led to the seizure of the American Government by Corporate interest groups and labour unions, as they buy up politicians and usher through laws intended to benefit only their profit margins.
Once again we run into the confounding quagmire of interpretation. The Bible, for instance, fully encourages the owning of slaves—so long as they are from foreign nations (Leviticus 25:44). This is a point which is happily ignored by most religious practitioners. Yet if Wall St. and the Stock Exchange in general are meant to allow people to buy and sell shares in Corporations, and Corporations are legally defined as human beings, then Wall St. and the American Stock Exchange must be little more than a glorified slave market.
It’s a difficult circle to square, but considering that the Constitution begins with the famous preamble of “We the people…”, the fact that meaning and sense have all but left the building should come as no surprise to any observer of the current political scene. The document has been bastardized for agendas entirely removed from the interests of the people—one need look no further than the establishment of ‘Free Speech Zones’ (Link) for evidence of that.
Presently, we continue to look to holy books for advice: on family planning, attitudes towards love, and more. The constitution as well is the be-all-end-all source for issues which had no contextually-relevant counterpart in the time of its conception. Issues such as gun control in modern times, managing political dissent, the definition of marriage and more will not be solved by looking to the uninformed past, but rather by looking ahead, with the clairvoyance and empathy which can be garnered from hundreds of years of crucial experience.
Ultimately, whether you’re looking to one of the Holy Books for inspiration, or to the Constitution for guidance, it’s worth considering that you might be doing a fire-dance to fix your empty lighter. While there is undoubtedly great wisdom and sense to be had in both documents, at the end of the day, to live by laws set out for different times rather than relying on the common sense and decency inherent to us all is a misguided effort. Here at Brad OH Inc., we look forward to the day when such archaic attitudes are as outdated as the source material upon which they rely.
-Brad OH Inc.