“Your right to use your fist ends at the tip of my nose.”
My father, an esteemed professor of political science, taught me that one. The idea is that rights – even the most fundamental ones – aren’t absolute.
Yes, I have the right to bear arms, but I can have that right rescinded if I’m sent to prison. I have the right to free speech, but that right doesn’t permit me to incite a riot. I have the right to practice my religion, but not to forcibly convert people or launch a jihad.
The limits on our rights should be obvious, but they seem to be growing less and less so. As politics become more polarized and positions become more hardened, more people are viewing issues in absolute terms.
This has long been a hallmark of religious fundamentalism, which views compromise as a dirty word and sees “situational ethics” as a tool of the devil to tempt the righteous. But of late, political partisanship has started to look more and more like a religious cult.
Identity, not issues
Donald Trump has tapped into this by casting himself as a pseudo-messiah who alone can fix it – whatever “it” is, and even if “it” doesn’t need to be fixed. But the problem extends far beyond Trump’s opportunism. It’s a rigidity of belief, a dogmatic loyalty that transcends issues and defines the true believer’s identity.
It’s not just Republicans; it exists on the Democratic side, too. Witness the anger among party regulars when Bernie Sanders, a (gasp) independent, dared to challenge loyal partisan Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination.
My point isn’t to rehash the 2016 primary or general election. That’s been done to death, resurrected and keeps walking around like a zombie with a score to settle. It’s to illustrate that both sides have become more concerned with identity than with content. That’s why Trump can act in ways that seem antithetical to Republican ideals (Russia, tariffs, personal character) with impunity. Think about it: Trump himself has, at best, a passing acquaintance with what’s in the Bible, but he can refer to the Bible as a mark of identity, and Christians will stand up and cheer.
It's also why Trump’s status gets all the attention, and things like health care, education and crime barely register on the national news. Events like the Flint water crisis, the tragedy in Puerto Rico and the Las Vegas shooting (remember that?) break into the headlines temporarily, only to quickly disappear and be forgotten. They’ve had their 15 minutes of fame. The woman dying in a hospital because she can’t afford a prescription and the homeless guy who couldn’t repay his student loan don’t even get 15 seconds.
We care about identity, not issues. About labels, not people.
This isn’t just a result of tribalism (although it certainly is that), it’s fundamentalism, the engine that drove the Russian Revolution, the rise of Mao Zedong and, yes, Hitler’s ascension. On the surface, fundamentalism seems to be about strict adherence to dogma. But it’s really about magnifying personal power through the lens of identity, usually provided by labels or charismatic leaders. If those labels or leaders are challenged, principle will be sacrificed in a heartbeat to protect them.
People have asked me why I dislike identity politics (which is, incidentally, practiced by both sides). There’s your answer.
Objectifying our principles
As positions are hardened and battle lines are drawn, the Constitution begins to function the way the Bible does in the world of Trump. It becomes less a source of guiding principle and more an object to be defended. Its contents and meaning become less relevant; all that matters is the identity it conveys on true believers.
They see the Second Amendment as an absolute right not only to bear, but to brandish and even to use firearms, including the most lethal. Especially if they’re the ones holding the guns.
They believe the First Amendment protects even speech that incites others to violence or curtails their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As long as they’re not on the receiving end of it.
They invoke it to defend the practice of religion – even when that practice involves discrimination, bigotry or passing restrictive laws based against “outsiders.” As long as their the ones making those laws.
This us-versus-them view of the world is the root of the problem. “We” are always right, good and superior. “They” are always wrong, evil and inferior. Such fundamentalist paranoia about “the world” and “heretics” and “unbelievers” has infected party politics to a degree not seen since the Southern white establishment’s resistance to the civil rights movement. It’s reflected in the attitude of many toward immigrants, regardless of legal status, and toward people belonging to the opposite party.
It has been, of course, the justification for slavery, pillage, murder and genocide.
Such attitudes are buttressed by the concept of “strict constitutionalism” – of applying the Constitution “the way the framers intended.” This sounds noble on the face of it. But not only is it problematic, it’s ludicrous and, in the end, dishonest.
It’s problematic because we can’t get inside the framers’ heads to determine exactly what they intended. We can consult their writings, but guess what? The framers didn’t all agree on everything. They reached compromises. In fact, based on their actions, that may be clearest conclusion we can draw about their intent: that they agreed on the value of compromise – quite inconvenient in the current political climate, where compromise is viewed as weak or downright evil.
(This aversion to compromise is, not surprisingly, another hallmark of religious fundamentalism. You don’t compromise with outsiders, unbelievers and heretics. You don’t give the devil a foothold. In American politics, you don’t call him the devil. That’s something Ayatollahs do. Instead you label him – or her – according to his or her political party or race or sexual orientation. You say he’s a communist or a Nazi. Or you call him names like “liddle” and “crazy” and “sneaky” and “crooked.”)
Now, where were we? Oh, yes ...
Applying the Constitution as the framers intended is ludicrous because they intended it for the world they lived in. Not ours. They set forth a series guiding principles were meant to be universal, or nearly so, not a hard-and-fast code of conduct.
They weren’t intended to be applied the same way every time; broad principles never are. Sometimes, “love thy neighbor” means to give of one’s self out of compassion; other times, it means practicing tough love. It all depends on the circumstances, and circumstances have changed dramatically since the framers’ era. They lived in a world of newsletters, bayonets and horse-drawn carriages, not social media, assault weapons and Teslas. They couldn’t have envisioned our world, and they didn’t try to. They counted on us to follow the principles they set down, not try to replicate how they would have interpreted them.
So, it’s ultimately dishonest to try to get inside the framers’ heads and apply things the same way they might have. It’s like trying to get inside the head of God – which is what religious fundamentalists do all the time. And guess what? The dictates of such a “God” nearly always wind up echoing their own biases and furthering their own agendas. In the same way, strict constitutionalists tend to substitute their own biases and agendas for what they imagine the framers might have intended. This isn’t strict constructionism.
It’s reconstructionism and, strictly speaking, a power grab.
These days, many Americans no longer think twice about sacrificing principle in achieving their goals, whether those principles are contained Bible, Constitution or somewhere else. To them, identity is more important. “Winning” is more important.
Welcome to the Machiavellian States of America.
Neither Islam nor Christianity is the true threat to our republic. The real danger lies in the fundamentalist approach to both that has spread to our politics.
If we really believe in the Constitution, we have to stop “defending” it and start abiding by the principles it sets forth. If we don’t, we’ll be spitting in the face of the framers we pretend to revere and exchanging their vision for the very thing they fought to be free of: tyranny
We’ve started down a road that leads us to a place where we won’t recognize ourselves ten years from now. We won’t recognize our country. And worse still, a good many of us may actually like it.