Van Ens: Should we read the Constitution and the Bible literally? (column)
Bible readers interpret the same passage differently. It’s easiest to read scripture literally, taking each word at face value. A literalist reads the Bible as factually presenting Adam and Eve as the original human beings.
After entering Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, Jesus’ supporters took literally his promise to reign as “King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:11). Jesus was speaking figuratively, of course, using metaphorical language of establishing “God’s earthly kingdom.” He intended to spread divine justice on earth to care for the poor. Religious officials and Roman authorities, however, literally interpreted his claims of becoming king and crucified this competitor.
Some biblical literalists read the Constitution as they do scripture. They treat its “original intent” as a series of facts that mean the same today as they did for James Madison, the Constitution’s prime architect.
Consequently, “originalism … has a natural affinity with some varieties of Protestantism, and the United States differs from all other Western democracies in the far greater proportion of its citizens who believe in the literal truth of the Bible,” writes Harvard historian Jill Lepore. (“The Commandments: The Constitution and its worshippers,” The New Yorker magazine, Jan. 17, 2011, p. 76).
The late Supreme Court Justice Antonio Scalia expressed confidence in finding the literal, original truth of the Constitution. He asserted: “The Constitution … means today not what current society, much less the court, thinks it ought to mean, but what it meant when it was adopted.”
Like-minded conservative Christians agree with Roman Catholic Scalia. They say the Constitution and the Bible possess consistent meanings that do not change with current social trends. What these texts meant is fixed. Constitutional and biblical originalists cling to narrow interpretations and reject flexible interpretations responsive to our citizen’s needs.
This bald literalism runs into trouble with the Second Amendment, which reads: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Thomas Jefferson had no difficulty arming 10-year-olds with rifles. Most colonial youngsters lived off the land, shooting deer, quail and wild turkeys for food.
Jefferson saw no need to endorse a constitutional amendment that protected citizens’ rights to own firearms. What the Second Amendment primarily speaks to is the responsibility of states to muster well-armed local militias that battle foreign aggressors.
Jefferson believed in a standing federal army. Most colonial religious conservatives rejected the army as big government’s intrusive power over the right of states’ militias to defend for themselves.
“As (Virginia’s) governor he (Jefferson) came to believe that the militia was an imperfect tool to defend the commonwealth. The militia was difficult to raise and slow to stabilize, expensive to arm and equip and proved to be of limiting effectiveness against regular British troops,” writes historian Francis D. Cogliano (“Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy,” Yale University Press, 2014, p. 37).
If attacked today, then would the United States depend on local militias instead of the federal army for defense? Of course not. Former Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork had it right: “The Second Amendment works ‘to guarantee the rights of states to form militias,’” he argued in 1989, “not for individuals to bear arms.”
Literalistic readings of human origins are wrong, too. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden don’t record an exact historical account of human origins (Genesis 2:15-3:24). “Adam” in Hebrew means “every person.” His story speaks to every age because the Garden of Eden is a metaphor pointing to that place in our hearts where we overstep and play God.
Biblical and constitutional interpretations are flexible, not fixed, when they speak to contested contemporary national needs.
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 and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.