February 25, 2011

And the Founders said: Let there be a constitution. And the Founders looked at the articles and clauses and saw that it was good.

For more than 200 years, Americans have revered the Constitution as the law of the land, but the GOP and tea party heralding of the document in recent months — and the planned recitation on the House floor Thursday — has caused some Democrats to worry that the charter is being misconstrued as the immutable word of God.

“They are reading it like a sacred text,” said New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the outgoing chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, who has studied and memorized the Constitution with talmudic intensity.

Nadler called the “ritualistic reading” on the floor “total nonsense” and “propaganda” intended to claim the document for Republicans. “You read the Torah, you read the Bible, you build a worship service around it,” said Nadler, who argued that the Founders were not “demigods” and that the document’s need for amendments to abolish slavery and other injustices showed it was “highly imperfect.”

“You are not supposed to worship your constitution. You are supposed to govern your government by it,” he said.

But exalting the Constitution is hardly new. Constitutional scholars and historians say the document has occupied a nearly spiritual sphere for Americans practically since its ratification.

“It has an immediate and obvious parallel to how you interpret the Bible,” said Noah Feldman, a law professor and constitutional scholar at Harvard.

“The Constitution is seen as both the source and the product of God’s blessing on the United States,” said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist and adviser to the Pew Forum’s surveys on religion in politics. “Reading and invoking the Constitution is part of a public ritual that makes up the civil religion.”

In his first presidential inaugural address, George Washington divined the invisible hand of providence in the nation’s creation, a pervasive belief, Green said, that imbued the Constitution with a “quasi-scriptural” quality. The perceived majesty of the document has waxed and waned over time, but after a sweeping Republican Party victory in the November midterms, it is conservative and tea party members who are most vocal in extolling its restorative powers.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a frequent exalter of the Constitution, said Thursday’s reading is a logical reaction to a campaign that was explicitly run on its principles. She said she believes that the Constitution was a guide to paring down expansive government powers. “The words of the Constitution mean what they say they mean,” she said. She described the Constitution as “the organic, original document” that “gives life to a nation.”

“It’s not on the same level as a sacred text that God would hand down to the faithful,” said Bachmann, specifying the the document was “secular” and intended to provide parameters for the branches of government. But, she added, religious inspiration had a role in the document’s drafting. “Those who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were themselves devout individuals — primarily in their Christian faith,” she said, arguing that the product was “reflective of their sincerely held beliefs.”

Bruce Ackerman, a Sterling professor of law and political science at Yale, expressed a different view about the motivating spirit of the Founders.

“They are steeped in Enlightenment classical culture. They want a reestablishment of Republicanism through acts of reason,” he said. “This is deeply inconsistent with the rote reading of a text as if it were handed down from Mount Sinai.”

Differing interpretations of the intentions of the Founders and the meaning of the text are virtually as old as the Constitution.

The document’s genius, according to many scholars, is its often purposeful ambiguity — what Akhil Reed Amar, a Yale law professor and author of “America’s Constitution: A Biography,” called the Founders’ ingenious establishment of a “common vocabulary for disagreement.”

But some Democrats and constitutional scholars said the tea party had an atemporal view of the document that ignored the monumental changes of the Civil War, the New Deal and the Civil Rights era.

Ackerman said the events of the constitutional convention showed that the Constitution resulted from a “pro-tax rebellion” on the part of Federalists who thought the Articles of Confederation lacked enough power to raise taxes to pay the nation’s considerable war debts.

Nadler agreed. “A lot of the tea party people, I wonder how many of them have read the Constitution,” Nadler said. “A lot of them, they seem to think the Constitution is the Articles of Confederation.”

Nadler said he anticipates a raft of “idiotic amendments” from Republicans, such as an effort to allow states to nullify acts of Congress, that would blatantly violate the Constitution.

Suspicious and mocking as Nadler was of the Republicans’ motivation for reading out loud what he affectionately characterized as “a long, dry, boring document with details about how Congress will have power to lay imposts and taxes,” he agreed with other constitutional experts, and even the tea party, that there was a potential benefit.

“Maybe,” he said, “it will be a little educational.”

horowitzj@washpost.com

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