The Bible, the Constitution, and a Great Text’s Need for Constant & Open Interpretation
In the mid-nineteenth century, an upstate New Yorker and prophet by the name of William Miller founded his very own brand-new Protestant denomination. Like most prophets, Miller believed that he had a special and divine knowledge concerning the future of the world and mankind alike. Unlike most prophets that have survived the test of time, however, Miller’s predictions were incredibly specific: Using a formula based on three verses of the Jewish Bible’s Book of Daniel, Miller prophesied that the second advent of Jesus Christ would occur on the afternoon of October 22, 1844.
It is estimated that by the early fall of 1844 Miller’s followers numbered over 100,000. To put that in perspective, the only US city at the time to have a population larger than Miller’s tribe was New York City; Miller’s followers, known as the Seventh Day Adventists, easily outnumbered either Bostonians or Philadelphians. Most of those followers would leave the church shortly after October 22, once it became apparent that Jesus would not be returning as advertised. (In that true sober fashion of Protestantism that is often unintentionally hilarious, the church would later refer to Jesus’s apparent tardiness as The Great Disappointment.) The Seventh Day Adventists would continue as a formal religion, but one that was unable to see significant membership growth for more than 100 years. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, the church began to see exponential growth as it sought to tell the story of the symbolism behind Miller’s failed vision in parts of the world that were far, far removed from upstate New York.
The Seventh Day Adventists are, today, one of the world’s fastest growing religious sects. But they have only been allowed to become so because time and distance have allowed their doctrine to become less precise, and more open to interpretation. Had the Seventh Day Adventists made a different decision along the way, a decision that there was but One True and Literal Way to interpret the words of William Miller, their church would now be but an historical footnote in the long and storied history of failed nineteenth-century American apocalyptic Protestant sects.
I have been thinking about the history of the Seventh Day Adventists this past week, in the wake of both the SCOTUS decisions on healthcare reform and immigration, and Tom Van Dyke’s post on American politics and Christianity. Each conversation swirls around one of two ubiquitous texts that we Americans use as a filter for most of our fundamental arguments: the Bible and the Constitution. Each is an undeniably Great work, in a very capital-G sense of the word Great. Each has stood its own test of time, and each continues to be at the very heart of our discussions of both what being an American means, and what it is that we want America to become. There is a good reason that these two documents have survived, and that our reliance on them as a source of wisdom survives as well: each lacks the preciseness that would have stifled our country’s physical, economic and moral evolution. Their triumph lies not in telling us what we should do, but rather in demanding that we ask ourselves, over and over, what kind of people we choose to be.
Both the Bible and the Constitution are social, political, and moral Rorschach tests, and we as a society are all the better for that.
I will confess that I believe the Constitution and the Bible both to be “living documents,” even as I find that term somewhat hokey. The “living document” phrasing bothers many people, I know, and I can understand the hesitation with using this verbiage. If either text can mean different things to different people, then it certainly lacks the absolute authority one might hope for in a foundational framework. On the other hand, the great thing about living documents is that they get to live.
There has been little rewriting of the Bible since the Councils of Carthage, save for some debate here and there over translation. And yet that finite group of short writings has been the inspiration for the bedrock beliefs of Americans as diverse as Catholics, Quakers, Charismatics, Baptists, Millerites, Lutherans, Methodists, Unitarians, Latter Day Saints, and even those that identify as “I’m not religious but I’m very spiritual.” Almost every significant political movement in our country’s history has used these texts to argue on their behalf. The Bible’s lessons have been used by American politicians to justify slavery, torture, genocide, and the suppression of fundamental rights to the majority of our population; they have also been used as compelling arguments in the dismantling of all of those same shameful systems at various times. Conservatives point to Jesus’s words and claim they are a call to lower taxes and dismantle safety nets so that you might realize the greater freedom that wealth brings; liberals point to Jesus’s acts and claim they are a directive to not allow the poor and indigent to suffer.
As a nonbeliever, I find this to be the Bible’s most endearing strength. It doesn’t spell out for us what the correct answer to a political conundrum is; rather, it forces us to ask the question of ourselves, and puzzle out the answer against the backdrop of what kind of people we want to be. Had we all been very clear that the Bible demanded that we allow slavery, for example, or not allow women the right to vote, the book would have been relegated long ago to the ash heaps of US history. Had our founders been very clear that Bible demanded women, blacks and native Americans be allowed the same rights as white male property owners, it would have never been allowed to be a part of our history at all.
The Constitution is a great guiding light for similar reasons. The story we tell ourselves, Liberals and Conservatives alike, is that our framework document spells out rather explicitly what is and isn’t Constitutional. But the truth is actually far murkier. Originalists may declare that if we simply read the text without bringing our own preconceptions to the table, there is no room for argument, that it’s all written down in easy-to-understand black and white. The fundamental problem with this approach is that in order to be an Originalist, you still have to bring your own preconceived notions to the table.
Take for example our revered First Amendment, which declares that our government will make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” It uses simple enough phrasing, but it is in fact quite ambiguous; or at least we all choose it to be so. There is no one I know that believes, for example, that libel and slander laws should be eliminated, or that an advertising firm should be legally allowed to market an ice cream made with heavy cream to the lactose intolerant by declaring it “Dairy Free!” Originalists might argue that you have right of assembly, period, on paper. But back in the days of the Occupy Movement, the Venn diagram of Originalists and those arguing that the protests be allowed to run their course without the government shutting them down were two circles with very little overlap. Those politicians most likely to oppose the building of mosques in Manhattan or Tennessee and letting Muslims assemble in them are usually, despite the irony, the very same politicians that argue most strongly for an Originalist, non-activist reading of the Constitution.
Further, the actions of our founders surrounding these rights would be viewed as tyranny by today’s Originalist standards. In 1798 Benjamin Franklin’s grandson started a newspaper, The Aurora, that was critical of much of the fledgling government, and of George Washington and John Adams in particular. The editors were arrested by the federal government, including the Senate who had them separately arrested for the crime of “breach of privilege;” one of the editors died in jail awaiting trial. The Alien and Sedition Acts themselves were declared and defended by our founders, even as others opposed them. The youngest of the founding fathers were still around to implement the Gag Rule to ensure that anti-slavery protests could be outlawed. Fanny Hill, the bawdy novel that you can now buy at your local Barnes and Noble, was written fifty years before the First Amendment was penned, and yet it was a crime to sell or purchase a copy in this country until 1966.
Let us suppose for a moment that the founders, regardless of their long-term intentions, had been so specific in the working of our First Amendment that their own acts would be viewed as perfectly logical to the modern eye. Let’s say that they had pulled a William Miller, so to speak, and declared that the government “shall make no laws to abridge the freedom of speech except in those instances that they truly offend the President and Congress; they shall further allow the freedom of the press and assembly except when the agenda of either disrupts the goodwill of the people toward the President or Congress.” They might well have done so; had they done so their actions would have made more sense to those of us that are modern Americans. But had they done so, it seems obvious, the Constitution and perhaps our very government wouldn’t have survived the test of time.
What makes our framework document great, I would argue, is that it does indeed grant us an amorphous freedom of speech – and then it leaves it for us as a people, generation after generation, to figure out exactly what that freedom means. It tells us that Congress has the power to make inter-state legislation that affects the common good, but it forces us to puzzle and hash out what that common good is.
This is a good thing, and even though it leads to some failed policies, it allows us to grow and evolve as a society while retaining the very framework that makes us so strong. The men that passed the 13th, 14h and 15th amendments clearly had no intentions of signaling that they approved of black people becoming truly equal with whites; the civil rights movement that followed a hundred years later would have confused and horrified them. But our evolving to a place where the legal and cultural segregation of blacks was both distasteful and unacceptable was a direct result of those amendments nonetheless. That we as a people were allowed to grow into that interpretation of our Constitutional rights is not just a good thing, it’s a great thing.
So I say let us tear apart and devour our religious texts and our founding documents. Let us hold them up to the light and look for the wisdom they contain, even if that wisdom would have been a heresy to those who came before. And let us teach our children to do the same, that they might rend our own interpretations to dust as is needed as the world grows and ages, and our sensibilities evolve.
That we can do so is what makes them Great.