The constitution as a religious document

Why do some conservatives treat the constitution like a religious document? A comment yesterday by Mark Levin gave me a little insight. I think it has to do with a fear of relativism.

Mark Levin was talking on his radio show about the reason why the Bill of Rights should be viewed as absolute and inviolate. He was taking a historical perspective, and even going into some detail about how the Bill of Rights came into being. But he was framing the entire discussion in this context: the founding fathers were extremely cautious about the idea of amending the constitution. They did not just do it willy-nilly. Therefore, we need to take the Bill of Rights very seriously.

So far, so good. On the face of it, I agree with that sentiment.

But then he goes on with this argument (paraphrased, to the best of my ability): The Bill of Rights represents bedrock principles of our government. We can’t just go and change them to suit our needs! Because if we are allowed to change them, then that means they are just arbitrary. That makes them meaningless. If we can just decide to alter them whenever we want to, then we have become a lawless society.

This little diatribe aired around 5:15 PM CST on March 14 2013, and if anyone can get me the exact wording I would be grateful.

At any rate, this particular line of reasoning jumped out at me dramatically, for two reasons.

First: It is face-value against the way the founding fathers wanted us to think about the constitution. If the founding fathers had wanted the constitution to be inviolate, then they would have made no provision for amendment. The fact that the constitution includes a very specific mechanism for amendment means that the authors of the constitution anticipated that it may have to evolve over time to accommodate changes in society.

Of course, they didn’t want such change to be capricious, so that the constitution would change with the whims of fad and fancy. That’s why they made amending the constitution difficult.  But they made it possible, none-the-less.  So the kind of philosophical instinct that says “If we think of it as possible to change the rules in the constitution, then that means they are meaningless and we live in a lawless society” most definitely does not reflect the beliefs of the founding fathers, and it is not a philosophy that is written into the mechanics of the constitution.

Second: On the other hand, in what document do we find that kind of logic?

You guessed it… the Bible.

 


 

The Bible very clearly states that it is the word of God, not the opinions of people. It therefore cannot be altered from its present form in any way because to do so would be to change the word of God.  To claim that you can “change the rules” in the Bible is tantamount to saying the results are not actually from God. And if God’s rules are not from God… then there really are no “God’s rules” at all.

That is the philosophical approach that traditional believers in the Bible hold when thinking about the Bible. It is impossible for them to consider that something in the Bible might be a creation (or interpretation) of human beings that could be altered to fit our current culture, because to consider even that possibility would be to conclude:

1) The rules in the Bible are changeable, therefore,
2) The rules in the Bible are arbitrary, therefore,
3) The rules in the Bible are meaningless.

This kind of logic is why strict religious conservatives insist that it is improper to consider any parts of the Bible to be “outdated” or “for another time” or anything like that.  To think that any part of the Bible changeable means, according to this 1-2-3 logic, that the Bible is meaningless.

Of course, this 1-2-3 logic exactly mirrors what Mark Levin said on his radio show about the Constitution.

It’s almost as if, while he was ranting, it slipped his mind that he was talking about a political document. Or maybe it’s as if he considers the constitution to be the word of God. Or maybe there is something deeper going that underlies both cases.

 


 

Tree of KnowledgeWhen I was in college, I read a fantastic book by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela called “The Tree of Knowledge“. It was my first introduction to the philosophy of radical  biological constructivism. In the first section of the book, called “The Cartesian Dilemma”, they talk about the basic assumption that many philosophers have taken for granted for a long time: that there is a subjective world, and an objective world, and part of understanding the universe involves understanding the relationship between the two.

Interestingly, they also talk about the fact that this assumption leads to a deep, deep anxiety and fear among many people.  It ultimately is the fear that our perceptions might not be rooted in an objective reality at all.

They argue that this anxiety manifests as a drive toward one of two untenable extreme directions: solipsism or realism. If you begin to doubt the connection between the subjective world and the objective world, you could slide toward solipsism: what if it’s all just in my head?!? That question, that fear and anxiety, often can lead to one of two things: solipsism (essentially “giving up” on objective reality and saying everything is just a dream) or realism (demanding that we cannot doubt our senses and that in the end, somehow, there must be some reason that our subjective world really really does line up with an objective reality that is “out there”).

But both of those extreme positions, they argue, are rooted in a false dichotomy between “self” and “other” to begin with.

At any rate, I’m bringing this up now because I feel like I am seeing, in Mark Levin and those who gravitate toward his style of argument, a manifestation of this very same anxiety.  In this case, it is the great anxiety that is produced by the fear that maybe moral rules really are just creations of our own selves, and they are not rooted in an “objective” reality that is “out there” in the universe.

To put it simply: Mark Levin, and those who gravitate toward this kind of argument, experience a kind of fear when they consider the possibility that our moral rules might not be grounded in something objective, and outside of ourselves.

The 1-2-3 style argument, above, essentially reflects the same argument used by the “realist” who fears the slippery slope toward solipsism.  Let’s see if you see the familiar format of the argument:

1) Our perceptions do not correspond to objective physical attributes of the universe, therefore,
2) Our perceptions are completely created by our own minds, therefore,
3) Our perceptions are meaningless hallucinations

It’s the same argument, on a broader philosophical level.  It’s not a logical argument; but rather, it is an argument rooted in fear: the fear that unless you can cling onto something objective outside of yourself, everything is completely lost.

It is the fear of not having a referential “ground”, to use philosophers’ terminology.

 


 

It’s too abstract for practical policy discussions, but I think it’s worth talking about and thinking about this issue when having philosophical discussions about the role of government, and the way we think about laws and the constitution.

Do you consider moral laws to be subjective constructs of our society, that ultimately are creations of human beings and that therefore can and always will evolve over time?

Or do you consider moral laws to be objective things, things that are “out there” in the universe and that humans have merely discovered rather than invented?

It would be interesting to, at least from time to time, have the discussion on that kind of abstract level… and see on which side people fall.



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  1. Jeffery Anderson says:

    I’m pleased to have read this at a time when I am taking Intro to Philosophy in college and the concepts you describe are fresh to me. I fully grasp the fear of losing moral absolutes because it does provide a comfort to imagine that there are certain maxims that cannot be called into question — and making those relative or arbitrary leads to questioning any concept if right or wrong. The inherent failing in trying to declare what those absolutes are is that interpretation is fluid and always evolving, and that’s after moving past a history of translations that can called into question. In my judgment, the only useful absolute if there could be one would be a focus on treating others well. Of course, all of this speaks to the broader philosophical arguments you bring up. As far as the focus in the Constitution, I am inclined to follow your line of reasoning that if it was meant to be seen as an inviolable document, then why provide an avenue for amendment?

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