Reading the Constitution
Dateline: August 09, 2000
How do we interpret the Constitution? Answering this question isn't easy - indeed, there is a heated debate about it all of the time. This is not just an esoteric or academic debate, especially for atheists concerned about religious freedom. How we interpret the document that is supposed to guarantee our liberties will decide just what those liberties are and how far the extend.
Because this is a debate which has flared up in the discussion forum, I felt it important to offer an article describing the issues and supporting the interpretational method which I think is best.
The methods used to interpret the Constitution are numerous - far too numerous to fully explore here in this short article. Instead, I will focus on two general trends: One treats the document as a fixed text with fixed meanings, the other treats it as a living document with meanings that will shift over the course of time as social needs and situations shift.
As we shall see, the first method has a lot of supporters, especially among social conservatives today looking to criticize Supreme Court decisions which have expanded people's liberties in areas of privacy, religion, and reproduction.
The allure of their method is understandable and the arguments sound reasonable - at least, until they are examined more closely. And when we take a closer look at some of the decisions which have been rendered in light of their textualist principles, the method appears downright dangerous.
The second method has many supporters too, and relies upon an abstraction of Constitutional language rather than focusing upon the narrow meaning of the individual words themselves. The point of such interpretation is to find ways in which the basic principles can be applied to our ever changing circumstances today, rather than attempting to force our circumstances to adapt to 18th Century conceptions.
It is not surprising that these different views have been dubbed "Protestant" and "Catholic" by some (as metaphors - they aren't meant to describe the actual religious faiths of people). The "Catholic" view, like its religious counterpart, attempts to go beyond the mere text and make use of the principles behind the text and the traditions of reading the text - admitting that the text was created in specific historical circumstances not necessarily relevant today.
The "Protestant" view, like its religious counterpart, rejects any great importance to extra-textual tradition. The "Protestants" insist that the literal text itself, informed solely by the assumed intent of the authors, is the only and sufficient guide to understanding the Constitution and applying it to current cases.
I won't pretend that the issues I'm writing about here are easy - some people may have to read portions a couple of times. But these are important issues, and I hope that you will take the time to follow the arguments and consider the position I am advancing.
Go on to read about what textualism is and what its problems are...
Learn more about Supreme Court Decisions on Religious Liberty
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