Only the Constitution

Whenever a document controls people’s lives, a group arises with the power to interpret its meaning. In Judaism, the Talmudic writings provide an interpretation of the Torah (First five books of the Jewish scriptures). On the legal side, the U.S. Supreme Court is considered the authority on the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. Their interpretations define “Constitutional Law”

The authority to interpret the guiding document of a religion or state is, essentially, the power to control how people live their lives. It is very easy for the power to be abused.

In 1510, the Catholic Church played a major role in Western Europe through the Pope’s power to say what the Bible meant. No opposing authority existed to counter Rome’s interpretations. Then in 1519, an obscure monk in a remote town pasted “95 theses” to the Wittenberg church door.

Martin Luther’s actions were the beginning of the end for the Catholic Church’s monopoly over what the Bible meant. The Latin phrase “sola scriptura” (Only the scriptures) became a clarion call for those who believed the Catholic Church has had lost its way in proclaiming the meaning of the Bible. The belief arose that the Church itself had become unscriptural and was no longer a faithful interpreter.

Rome declared it had the authority to let people buy an “indulgence” to reduce their punishment in Purgatory. It was selling these to raise money for its own needs. In the early 16th century, a large amount of money was spent in beautifying the Vatican area. (Michelangelo painted the Sistine chapel from 1508 to 1512.)

The “Protestant Reformation” started with Luther’s actions. Large groups of people started “protesting” what Rome was doing and whether it had any connection with the scriptures. The movement took political flight when it became clear there was a way for princes and kings to get more authority at the expense of Rome. The interpretations of scripture by the Protestants led to different church practices.

No one, including Luther, could have predicted when or how Rome’s loss of control would happen.

We seem to approaching another time of change. The Supreme Court is assumed to have the power to control the “blessed” version of Constitutional Law. Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes wrote that “[w]e are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the Court says it is.” The split here is between the Constitution and what is known as “Constitutional Law.” The court controls Constitutional Law, but the original text of the Constitution is available to all.

The fight over Constitutional Law is often a fight over the concepts of “Original Intent” versus the “Living Constitution. Those who want to follow the “original intent” of the Constitution’s framers believe the courts should follow the Constitution and not look to expand its reach. The “Living Constitution” proponents argue there is a lot of “wiggle room” in the Constitution. The current fight over the “constitutionality” of the Health Care bill is part of this argument.

The Protestant Reformation was based on the belief that the Catholic Church’s teaching and practices were the result of a deliberate misreading of the Bible to give themselves more power. It was also a reaction to increased spending by the church.

The question for us is “now what?” Are the American people just going to accept the idea “the federal government can do most anything in this country”?

It is impossible to know what will trigger a split over the law. The Dred Scott case in 1857 seemed to give slaveholders a major victory in the courts. But, four years later, a civil war started over slavery which, eventually, overturned Dred Scott when the Reconstruction amendments (13-15) revised the Constitution.

It is clear, in hindsight, that the Dred Scott case was a major precipitant in the coming of civil war, but it was not as clear at the time. We may well have already seen what historians will see as the trigger event for the struggles of the next few years.

Once the belief arises that those “in charge” are deliberately misreading a document, the moment of rebellion is not far behind. Serious scholars have asked whether the current state of Constitutional Law is morally acceptable. The forcefulness of the Court on issues like abortion and gay marriage is leading more and more people to think of the courts as amoral agents destroying what is good in society.

A subtle change in public attitudes about the courts is all that is needed. Once the court is seen as partisan or imposing unpopular views or overriding the freedoms in the Constitution, support for the courts will disappear.

At that point, the protest could well be against the court’s Constitutional Law”. The battle cry may then be “Only the Constitution!”

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