08 May 2011
The Daily Show (here, here, here, here, and here) and the New York Times have recently devoted airtime and printspace respectively to the "historian" David Barton, champion of the Evangelical right who argues that the United States was explicitly founded on Christian principles. I have a problem, particularly with John Stewart and his extended dialogue with this self-branded savior of American history. To engage in arguments like this does something dangerous. Namely, discussing the intentions, motivations, and even the interpretable actions of the Founding Fathers legitimates a kind of textual essentialism; the Constitution becomes "an inerrant text," only to be interpreted literally. We often are told that the Constitution is a "living document," but many don't take that seriously. Let's face it, the Framers got a few things wrong: slavery and suffrage for women to name just a couple. In the same way that biblical literalists insistently attempt to directly apply books that are as much as four thousand years old to contemporary life, Constitutional dogmatists hearken back to those in 1787 as all-knowing and politically unencumbered. The Constitution has served us well as a rationalizing document, but we shouldn't worship it as a divinely infallible revelation.