Turning the Constitution on its Head---Literally
In the Fall of 2009, I was staffing the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance booth at the Ravalli County Fair. Our theme that year was “Health Care Is a Human Right”, because B.H.R.A. had spent a lot of time and energy that year advocating for a Universal Health Care model to replace the so-obviously broken one we still suffer from today. We had had some early success in the Winter and Spring, when most public health care discussions were overwhelmingly pro-single-payer or at least pro-public option. It was obvious and heartening. It looked like we were finally going to go somewhere, get something.
Most of the serious health care discussions pre-dated the April 15th coming-out party for the teabaggers (and yes, they started out proudly calling themselves “teabaggers” and I don’t see any reason to contradict them now). That was the date that Constitutional Literalism and a whole raft of other old and discredited Militia/sovereign-citizen tenets caught fire among adherents to the newly-minted, well-funded “Tea Party” movement throughout the country as well as in the Bitterroot. Mostly white, mostly middle-to-upper-class people were suddenly awakened to the fact that a non-white person could actually be elected president, and they were upset. They got religion. They repented, all of which was not such a hard transition since many of the faithful were already leaning towards biblical literalism (fundamentalism, reconstructionism etc.), essentially a branch from the same literary tree. A lot of Big Money, it turned out, was also behind the push to get the faithful to climb on board the Sovereign Citizen/ Militia bandwagon of claiming that anything that wasn’t literally written in what they claimed was the divinely-inspired constitution, including over 200 years of case law and amendments, was null and void unless it passed the test of their self-appointed “sacred” scrutiny. Attaching this ready-mix right-wing populism to Sovereign-Citizen/ Militia dogma also had the obvious advantage for Big Money, like the Kochs, of allying their economic interests with a large segment of poorly-informed, well-armed “2nd Amendment” warriors of the lower economic rungs who were also worried about the future status of their white privilege and were not shy of openly wearing their racism on their sleeve (1). Point made, they figured, without having to stick their own necks out. The Ron Paul model of political obfuscation, also a product (or at best a by-product) of Big Money. A perfect fit, I guess they figured.
The first ones I noticed were small knots of 2-3 at our Single-Payer rallies, with weird signs like “Govt. Out of My Health Care”, or single abusive drive bys, making (at the time) incomprehensible statements like “If you can’t afford it, then you don’t deserve it, you retrograde hippie”, and other savvy sayings very similar and heartfelt. By summer these folks were rolling into Belgrade airport, where Obama had landed to make a speech, on Koch Bothers “Hands Off America” luxury buses(1), claiming they’d bought and paid for the “free-speech zone” we’d been shunted to when we showed up, telling us to “get off their private property” (a true story) and, when we incredulously didn’t, trying to start a riot with us pro-single payer and/or public-option elderly people and students.
In Ravalli County, the new grouping of an old, old problem here, Celebrating Conservatism, started attracting hundreds of the above-mentioned repentants to the Fairgrounds, with revival-style chile feeds and extremist-hit-parade guests like notorious anti-Semite Red Beckman who lectured the good folks on how the Jews deserved the Holocaust because they killed Jesus and on the salubrious effects of Sovereign Citizen snake oil labeled “Sacred Constitution Elixir”.
So by Fall, with Health Care reform looking like the wreck it was destined to become, we figured we’d run our banner up the pole anyway, and there I sat at the 2009 BHRA fair booth, defending our posters proclaiming health care as a human right to all comers. About three days in, I was growing weary of challenging absurd constitutional notions half-baked for resale by the likes of..well..the Koch Brothers, of course, but also of Red Beckman, Richard Mack and Chuck Baldwin (2008 Constitution Party candidate) and eaten whole by those who apparently didn’t pay attention in high school government class. On that third day, a tall, cowboy-bedecked gentleman stopped briefly and stared at our posters with his arms folded and a deep frown on his face. I waited politely for what I knew was coming, which it did when he finally half-shouted at me, “That’s not in the Constitution!”
Quickly assuming he was referring to the human rights aspects of medical treatment, I took this as my cue. I uttered the phrase “living documents” and watched his back predictably stiffen. But this time, before allowing him a response, I quickly added, “And that’s where we part company.” Which, fortunately, we did, by his eliminating his presence in a huff. I certainly wasn't going to say anything more, and I learned something useful right then. You just can’t argue with them when they get like that. Better just to say what you mean up front, hope for the best and save your breath.
So here’s what I have to say:
Article Six of the U.S. Constitution literally says that “…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”.
It reads that way because the so-called founders knew from first-hand experience the evils perpetrated on individuals and society in the name of “God” by the various theocracies known as “states” before the revolution. They wanted no semblance of theocracy in their new experiment, and in fact a good few of them didn’t even identify themselves as “Christian”.
So the far-right fad of “constitutional literalism”—or “legal fundamentalism” if you mix fundamentalist dogma with constitutional law as Commissioner Kanenwisher happily does (2)—has always surprised me. How, I wondered, can a “constitutional literalist” whose staunch supporters demand that everyone else accept the literal interpretation of the constitution as “holy writ” find “inferred fundamental constitutional parental rights” in the same “holy writ” constitution you find Article Six in? Article Six is in black-and-white. Article “Kanenwisher” could—literally—be referred to as “black-and-blue” if carried to its logical conclusion. Demanding that the constitution be taken as a sacred, infallible document that must be taken literally and then turning around and ignoring nine-tenths of what doesn’t suit you used to be labeled, in the good All-American sense, snake oil, wasn’t it?
The roots of modern literacy and its apparently-unavoidable corollary—the snake-oil salesmen--go at least as far back as the first printing of the Gutenberg Bible, and maybe some folks can get farther than me in understanding these inscrutable mysteries by examining why God allowed all those “f”s in the original document when He really meant “s”. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not qualified to take the tangle straight on in a thousand words or so.
But I can try.
(1)From cover page of Koch Brothers Hands Off America website: “Dear President Obama, Get your hands off my America! I can no longer sit by and watch you intrude on our freedoms, our faith, and our family values. You want to take the money from our pockets and the guns from our hands. You’ve tried to replace our doctors with bureaucrats. Don’t you realize Americans have the right to make choices from their house-not take orders from the White House? Enough is enough—I’m taking my country back! Sincerely, America”
(2) As far as I know, within the religious/legal framework I’m using them, I’m either making these phrases up whole-cloth, or I’m shamelessly stealing them. If it’s found that I’m making them up; remember, you heard it here first!