Vail Daily column: Do Constitution, Bible change with the times?
Do the Constitution’s bedrock principles and the Bible’s moral codes ever change? Are they influenced by evolving cultural trends? Or, are the Constitution and Scripture set in stone, like the Ten Commandments chiseled on two tablets Moses acquired atop Mount Sinai?
James Madison, who framed constitutional limits at Philadelphia’s 1787 Constitutional Convention, believed in an evolving founding document. Retired in 1824, Madison looked back on the Constitution’s short 37-year-history. He recognized how this founding document evolved to fit emerging national trends since its ratification. Madison noted that the 1787 “language of our Constitution is already undergoing interpretations unknown to its founders.” Such changes didn’t upset him. The original 1787 text was evolving “with the changeable meaning of the words composing it.”
Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia rejects Madison’s conviction that the Constitution embraces many voices reverberating through its hallowed words. “Voices” include unresolved tensions and competing convictions within the constitutional text. Instead of including universally shared conclusions engraved in marble, traces of the founders’ debates still resonate within the text. The Constitution speaks with many voices, not one.
Denying this fact, Justice Scalia said he’s able to uncover one voice: the constitutional framers’ original intent. Scalia enters a mental time machine that takes him back to 1787 in order to discover the founders’ actual voice.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis thinks Justice Scalia engages in a fanciful quest. Ellis hears competing constitutional voices. For instance, Madison had two main fears. If tyranny ruled because power was concentrated at the top, or if anarchy prevailed because the states acted like fiefdoms answerable only to their constituencies, then the Republic would fail. Responding to these fears, framers hammered out a compromise between states’ rights and a national government that taxed citizens. They left this balance of power “hanging,” in the Constitution, without defining precise boundaries between states’ rights and the federal government’s domain.
Ellis rebuts Scalia’s wrong notion that the Constitution speaks with one voice, which evolving social trends can’t alter. “The Constitution was intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution,” declares Ellis.
Madison’s “original intention’ was to make all ‘original intentions’ infinitely negotiable in the future” he concludes (The Quartet Orchestrating the Second American Revolution: 1783-1789, p.172, 2015).
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy sides with Madison and Ellis in his ruling, making same-sex marriage legal in all states. “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” Kennedy wrote for the majority. “When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim of liberty must be addressed.” The Constitution has evolved, striking down traditional sodomy laws, to meet a new social reality: most Americans approve of same-sex marriage.
Similarly, does the Bible speak with one voice, condemning all homosexual practice? Or, are there other scriptural voices that make exceptions to ancient same-sex taboos?
Professor Bruce M. Metzger, who taught me at Princeton Theological Seminary, expresses why Christians respect the Bible as the premier guide for faith and moral living. “In traditional Judaism and Christianity,” he notes, “the Bible has been more than a historical document to be preserved or a classic of literature to be cherished and admired; it is recognized as the unique record of God’s dealings with people over the ages.” God’s will surfaces in the Bible, wrapped around human insights. His Word has filtered through human experience and functions like “a lamp for my feet, and a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105).
For centuries, most Christians assumed the Bible made a blanket condemnation of same-sex relationships. The Old and New Testaments include stern warnings that homosexual behavior was “an abomination” against how God wants humans to act.
History shows the destructive consequences of listening to only one biblical voice, however. Christians once approved of slavery because the Bible lacks a specific text in which God condemns it. Christians once denied women’s right to vote and hold property because such liberties placed them equal to men. Did God endorse only a patriarchal society? Looking back, we see how Christians erred, listening to one biblical voice.
Biblical writers such as King David declared pagan gods were “demons” (Psalm 96:5). These deities allowed adult priests to defile young boys in exploitive temple rites. The Bible condemns those perversions. But, don’t other scriptural voices approve of same-sex relationships marked by fidelity and love? The quality of the relationship counts more than the sex of the partners.
Justice Anthony Kennedy’s endorsement of same-sex marriage respects the Constitution as a living document, conditioned by emerging social practices and new behavioral insights. He wrote of constitutional amendments, “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.”
Learn meanings of the Bible’s sexual codes, too. Listen to the voices, not merely one voice.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling.
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