Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Bible, The Constitution, and The Bill of Rights

Funerals are wonderful events, family events. People come from the far flung regions to honor the memory of the deceased. Songs are sung, stories are told, photos are dragged out and pinned on boards for everyone to see and snicker at – or wonder at. The church ladies prepare a wonderful feast – a predictable feast – of potato chips, pickles, olives, sandwiches, pasta salads, potato salads, and many, many fluffy, creamy salads. Of course coffee, koolaid, and water to drink.

But the best part, for those who hope for life everlasting, is the knowledge that another believer (the beloved deceased) has made it beyond the reach of politics. Yes, unbelievable as it may sound, there will be no politicians in heaven. No elections. No campaign advertisements. No blaring billboards. Any who wish to enter that realm must surrender their party membership cards (and their guns) at the gate.

I know, I know; there was a brief outbreak of political competition in heaven a few thousand eons ago but that has been settled once and for all. Heaven is a place of harmony, and that makes it totally incompatible with politics.

Why all these unusual musings? I’ll explain, since you asked.

Driving home from a funeral today we saw a large billboard, festooned in red, white and blue, bearing the following message: 

The Bible                                The Source
The Constitution                   of our
The Bill of Rights                  Strength 

The words in the left hand column were emblazoned over the image of a man’s bent arm and bulging muscles. The background of the right column was, if I recall correctly, an American flag.

So what’s not to like in that? Aren’t the Bible, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights the source of America’s strength? Depends, sort of. Again, allow me to explain.

The Bible, first of all has no authority in the governance of our nation beyond the influence it exerts on those who know its content, believe in its precepts, and put them to work in their own lives. No American can use the Bible in any court of law to claim any right or protection not also incorporated into the laws of our land through state and national constitutions, and state and national statutes. And no one can be prosecuted for a violation of any Biblical injunction unless that Biblical prohibition was also made illegal by state or national legislation. In fact millions of Americans would be in very bad straits if the Bible were being used as a binding prescriptive guide to morality and legality.

The Bible is intended to serve as a revelation of God through the last 4,000 years. It was never intended to serve as the legal and moral authority of any nation (including Israel – parts of the Old Testament provided the Law which was supposed to be enforced but was more often ignored than obeyed – other parts, of course, came into being long after Israel ceased to be a state). Those who have tried to make it so serve, our Puritan forefathers for example, have created atrocities not unlike those that Americans decry in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

And what of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? First it should be said that the Bill of Rights, being the first ten amendments to the Constitution are now really a part of the Constitution. That may be a minor point but the insistence of some upon separating the two documents either reveals ignorance of the status of the first 10 amendments, or ignorance of the history of their origins. The original Constitution of the United States of America lacked, in the view of many early founders, guarantees to protect citizens from potential abuses imposed by their own government. They insisted that a Bill of Rights be made a part of the Constitution and threatened to oppose ratification of the Constitution if there was none forthcoming. So ten amendments were drawn up to satisfy the concerns of those who feared that the new government would be as repressive as Great Britain had been.

The patriotic billboard I saw today may well be right in claiming that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the strength of our nation. Time will tell. But if that is the case then why have we amended the Constitution twenty-seven times? And why, even now, are there suggestions of amending it again to ban gay marriage, to ban abortions, to force the federal government to balance the budget, to give the President a line item veto, to make English the official language of the nation, to declare the United States to be a Christian nation, and any number of other things our hapless politicians can dream up? And what of the frequent suggestion – usually from highly patriotic organizations – that we need a new constitutional convention to reshape the current constitution or replace it?

Our poor Constitution is a battered, patchwork document, constantly under attack by the same people who want us to believe that it is “The Strength of our Nation.” Every patch sewn onto the original document was resisted almost as vigorously as it was advocated and won its place in that “hallowed” document only because at least fifty-one percent of the citizens in three-quarters of the states voted for it. And even today, in many of our “Red States” you can hear the rumbling speech of John C. Calhoun arguing for nullification and secession.

So what is the strength of our nation? Wow! It is harder to name that strength than it is to deny what others believe to be our strength. As a Christian believer I have very high regard for the Bible. As an American I have high regard for the Constitution. But I cannot believe that those two documents are the strength of a nation that neither knows their content or lives by their precepts. How many Christians are truly Bible literate, could name the ten commandments, or the beatitudes, could, more to the point, honestly claim to have shaped their lives around them? How many Americans could name the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, and more to the point could tell you the content and purpose of the Articles in the original document?

Since the Bible is ignored by the vast majority of Americans, and the Constitution is either unknown or seen to be in need of much amending, those cannot be our strength. Our strengths – if we have namable strengths – must be a vestigial tendency toward brotherliness (I would call it a residual of that perfect state in which God once placed mankind), coupled with a fear of the sword. The relative prosperity which our nation has enjoyed since its founding has made it possible for those frail protections to preserve us and has kept the wolves of our darker nature at bay.  But I fear that they are growing more numerous, more bold, and more ferocious.

The dear deceased – at the funeral I just left, in case you have forgotten – is beyond all of that. Heaven may not be at all what we have imagined it to be, but it must be a place without politics or it won’t be heaven at all.

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