Words: Maybe Their Meaning Just Wears Out


It is a mistake to view ancient and historical texts-such as the Bible and the Constitution-as absolute, comprehensive, infallible or immutable. It is a mistake to see their writers as objects of veneration. People who do this tend to be rather like Pat Robertson, who quotes his own casual conversations with the Almighty, or Antonin Scalia, who thinks an innocent man belongs in prison if the only thing wrong with his trial was the verdict.

bibleStill it is useful, from time to time, to ask some questions related to these texts and their authors, and their evident intent. Let’s do that.

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First the Bible, chiefly the New Testament, because most of the world views this as a Christian nation, which in a cultural sense it arguably is; and because the right wing of American politics claims mostly to be guided by the Bible. All this, of course, is with apologies to Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, fellow agnostics and whatever other assortment of believers and nonbelievers we may comprise. Okay: Why is it that the people most insistent on the idea that we are, in fact, a Christian nation tend also to be the most determined that, as a nation, we not behave that way?

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How is it that a central tenet of Christian teaching-give to the poor-became “class warfare?” How did “turn the other cheek” morph into drone strikes and preemptive wars? How, in a sentence, did greed and bellicosity become Christian virtues?

How did public prayer become a cause cél√®bre of self-described Christians when the Bible clearly instructs that public prayer is hypocrisy and that real prayer should be conducted in a closet? Is there any such thing as public prayer, or is it just an excuse for sermonizing?

How did the myth of creation-a self-evident literary allegory-become a matter of mundane fact, to be taught alongside biology, in classes that are supposed to be about science, not literature?

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As a segue to the constitutional questions, how did religious freedom come to mean the ability to hawk bogus securities on television without fear of prosecution or even taxation? You know the pitch: Merle and Modene Munch heard the lord’s call an sent in thur last 25 dollars. Loan beholt, thur ship come in two weeks later with a lottery hit fer 25 million.

constitution How do you think the framers of the Constitution would feel about 14 wars since 1945, none declared by Congress as required by the Constitution, none objected to by the self-described strict constructionists on the Supreme Court?

What would they think about opening everybody’s mail, lying about it, then when caught, claiming it’s all constitutional, with or without the Fourth Amendment?

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Of the Founders, Thomas Jefferson, at one time in his life, might have approved of the idea that wealth and speech are pretty much identical (the essence of the Citizens United holding). That was when he was paying James T. Callender to libel John Adams. Here’s guessing he probably would have recanted after Callender decided to write about Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.

As conservatives are fond of pointing out, the American War of Independence was largely about unreasonable taxation. So how do you think the people who fought it would feel about a Supreme Court that says a municipality can condemn your modest beachfront home and hand it over to a developer for purposes of eventually collecting higher property taxes?

How did a nation mostly of the Christian faith, which ostensibly is built on charity, and of a civic religion built partly on equality, come to tolerate segregation on economic lines-segregation so strict that now we have generations of dependent and hopeless Americans?

How did a right to gun ownership, which was granted to keep militias alive and slaves in check, become, not a civic right, but a basic human right, while food, housing, water and health care did not?

How did the wealthiest country on the planet, per capita, become the one with the highest prison population?

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A lot of people who profess to believe both in the Bible and in the Constitution would do well, perhaps, to read both with fresh eyes and open minds, or to confess that what they really believe is in their own interests, old writings be damned.

Ah, well, maybe the Founders foresaw all of this, and maybe the almighty, if there is one, intended it. Maybe it was sewn into the fabric of the documents we pretend to revere. Or maybe this kind of strict constructionism-you know, thinking words mean something-is just stupid.

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