Christian Ethics Today

Without Error: “Inerrancy” of the Bible and “Originalism” of the Constitution

By Patrick R. Anderson, editor

Fundamentalist Protestants who believe the Bible is “inerrant” and judges who adhere to an “originalist” view of the U.S. Constitution have the same mindset. Conservative Christians  consider the entire Bible to be absolutely true historically, without any mixture of error, and originalist judges consider the Constitution to be a sacred document which means exactly what the original authors intended for it to mean. The mindset they share could be stated as “it means exactly what I say it means, and there is no other way.”

The “inerrant” reading of the Bible and the “originalist” reading of the Constitution would not easily or prominently be found in either Biblical or Constitutional literary history prior to the late decades of the 20th century when fundamentalist Protestants used the concept of inerrancy to promote their narrow, literal understanding of Scripture. That approach bled over into their understanding of the Constitution as divinely inspired in its original form.

Shortly after being elected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Mike Johnson appeared on the FOX Network to be interviewed by Sean Hannity.

“I am a Bible-believing Christian,” he told Mr. Hannity. “Someone asked me today in the media, they said, ‘It’s curious, people are curious. What does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun?’ I said, ‘Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it.’ That’s my worldview.”

Really? I have several Bibles on my shelves, a Greek New Testament and a Hebrew Old Testament, numerous English language translations, several paraphrased versions. I pick up and read from one or more of them frequently. I read all of it, including the prophets. I find great insights to human nature and behavior in the stories found in the book of Genesis and elsewhere. But to say “the Bible is my worldview” is a trivial non-statement that reflects a nonsensical view of holy literature. It is a political statement for use in political contexts, not a statement of belief.

Editor Patrick Anderson

For me, the most challenging, inspiring, and relevant passages in the Bible are found in the “red letter” portions, words purported to have been spoken by Jesus Christ. My hermeneutic is to refer to the words and actions of Jesus to aid my understanding of the rest of the Bible. Jesus himself called into question passages from the Bible quoted and cited by his most ardent adversaries and gave new understandings and interpretations to what biblical scholars of his day thought they already understood. In what we call “The Great Commission” Jesus provides focus for bible teaching by telling his disciples to teach new believers “to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 20a), providing a syllabus for teachers.

Mike Johnson claims that his Bible teaches him to believe the universe was created about 6000 years ago, that Noah’s ark housed dinosaurs along with all the other animals and humans, and that any “scientific” rebuttal to those assertions shows evidence of a war on Christianity. His personal beliefs are his to hold, but when applied to public policy they are dangerous. The “young earth” beliefs and interpretations of the Bible lead to nonsensical education policies and social policies.

Nowhere is his approach to the Bible more disturbing than in his cavalier dismissal of the teachings of Jesus, especially his anticipated need for political violence despite Jesus’ instruction to “turn the other cheek.” He told a congregation in Shreveport, Louisiana

“This is not someone’s personally affronting you or saying something horrible about you to turn your other cheek and forgive them… We’re talking about the very survival of the truth in our nation…We serve the Lion of Judah, not some sort of namby-pamby little king. … Our weapons are for pulling down strongholds — this doesn’t sound like a namby-pamby Gospel.”

Indeed, it does not. The day after he was elected speaker of the House 18 people were brutally shot to death in Lewiston, Maine by a man using a military-style weapon, which most Americans want to prohibit. The next day he told Sean Hannity and a Fox Network audience:

“The problem is the human heart. It’s not guns, it’s not the weapons…At the end of the day, we have to protect the right of the citizens to protect themselves, and that’s the Second Amendment, and that’s why our party stands so strongly for that.”

So, on the one hand, the fundamentalist’s reading of the inerrant, literally true Bible is situational. Sometimes the Bible is to be literally followed (6-day creation), sometimes not (turn the other cheek). Baptist historian, Bill Leonard, famously remarks:

“Baptists fervently believe that only baptism by immersion (dunking) is acceptable, but at the same time they serve Welch’s grape juice in the Lord’s Supper!”

Which brings us to the matter of “originalist” reading of the Constitution which would ask the questions “What was the writers’ original intent?” and “What would reasonable people at that time have understood this text to mean?” The recently added conservative justices on the current Supreme Court have shown mixed adherence to that concept. For instance, the idea that the Second Amendment ratified in 1791 was designed to protect the rights of individual citizens in the 21st century to protect themselves with whatever gunpower is available is not what the Second Amendment says or intends. The literal, “original” Second Amendment states in its entirety:

“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.”

The need for a well-regulated militia to secure our free state has been supplanted by a standing, professional military. The single-shot muskets people armed themselves with in the 18th century have been supplanted by rapid-fire weapons capable of killing scores of people in seconds and made available to any and all of us. The original intent has nothing to do with life in the 21st century.

Further, two very recent decisions made by the Supreme Court’s current conservative majority demonstrate the inconsistency of the originalists’ application of the Constitution. First, the case decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy last year (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization), was based largely on the analysis of the Bill of Rights by Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote:

“The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely — the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The determining fact that the originalist justices leaned on was that in 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, people did not think that abortion was a protected right, since the text does not explicitly say so. Each concurring conservative justice repeatedly cited the lack of any explicit intention of the original writers to include protection of abortion and concluded that originalism, understanding the intent of the authors, is the proper method for interpreting the Constitution.

Then, in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, decided this past summer the same justices decided that race-based affirmative action programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. You would think that the justices would examine whether and to what extent people in 1868, when the 14th Amendment was ratified, thought that the 14th Amendment to the Bill of Rights permitted efforts to bring about racial equality. In fact, that was the precise purpose of the 14th Amendment. It was added to the Constitution just three years after the end of the Civil War which was fought to end chattel slavery in America. The expressed purpose of the 14th Amendment was to make formerly enslaved citizens equal to all other citizens, to make Black people equal. The race-based affirmative action programs designed to level the playing field for Black students, which the originalists justices found to be unconstitutional, were exactly consistent with the original purpose of the 14th Amendment.

The originalist justices who struck down affirmative action did not mention the original intent in any of their written decisions. Originalism was silent, nonexistent in the approach and reasoning of the justices. But in Dobbs, originalism was the key, even only criteria, and was repeatedly called on as primary rationale for their decision. The majority of this court’s conservative majority bases decisions on what they call the observance of the principle of originalism only when such observance is consistent with their own ideological values which enabled them to be placed on the court to begin with. If originalist interpretations of the Constitution are contrary to those ideological values, the conservative majority can easily disregard originalism.

Biblical inerrantists/literalists conservative Christians, usually supportive of the Christian Nationalist tribe, also bend or interpret Bible passages to comport with their established beliefs or biases. That comes as no surprise. Nor does it surprise us that Constitutional originalists on the court or in the legislature apply originalist methods to interpret the Constitution for 21st century realities only if their own beliefs and biases are enabled thereby.

The literalists and originalists share the mindset of “see it my way or no way at all”. They also share the obvious contradictions and subjective use of texts. A famous preacher often said, “I believe the whole Bible! I believe it from Holy Bible to Genuine Leather! Every word is verbally spoken to the writers by the Lord!” That’s cover-to-cover for those who never owned a leather-bound, Scofield Bible. Another famous preacher asked him, “Do you believe I Corinthians 7:12 is inspired?” “Of course.” Read what Paul said: “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord):…” NIV.

Very few Bible students believe the Bible the way literalists do. Likewise, Constitutional scholars and students who believe the Constitution should be interpreted and applied the way originalists do are not in the mainstream, and until recent decades they were on the fringe of Constitutionalists.

For the inerrantists, the serious rub comes in the way the Bible is spoken about and used. Self-described Bible believers like Speaker Mike Johnson somehow arrive at policy positions in which he and his fellow Republicans in the House seek to dramatically reduce funding for food support for very poor citizens who are unable to feed themselves, often the elderly, infirmed, and children. This week Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) introduced a bill that could ban Palestinians from entering the U.S. and possibly expel those who are already here in much the same way he and others seek to refuse asylum seeking people, fleeing authoritarian countries for their very lives, entrance to our country through our southern border. Such anti-immigrant sentiment is hardly the message of the Bible.

Johnson and other conservative legislators read the Bible in a way that spawns their drive to fervently advocate and legislate for abstinence-only, marriage-centered, anti-homosexual sex education. Their mindset feeds the laws designed to deny trans-sex kids medical care, ban books from school libraries, suppress the teaching of inconvenient historical facts, and support unregulated, ubiquitous, people-killing weapons to be in the possession of virtually anyone in America. If those convictions are his and the other Republicans in the House, fine, but it is not fine to say those positions have been arrived at by reading the Bible.

That approach has led to rejection of the foundational concept of separation church and state, the “wall of separation” Thomas Jefferson and others championed. Johnson maintains that the idea of separation of church and state was not advocated by founders such as Jefferson and Madison, which is absurd. In essence, Speaker Johnson argues that the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause was meant to keep government out of religion (Christianity) while religion (Christianity) is free to enter and influence government legislation and social policies, and to be exempt from obeying legislation and social policies they disagree with. For many staunch conservative Christians, religious belief has become a way for them to avoid adhering to the advances America makes in public health, civil, and human rights, especially at the local and state levels.

In terms of the Bible as one’s worldview, I recommend starting with the Sermon on the Mount and the words and life of Jesus Christ.

For the Constitutional originalists, who now make up the super majority of the US Supreme Court, even as they cherry-pick the portions of the Constitution to be read in the originalist method, one would hope that soon the practical implications of looking backward many years to determine how justice should be applied today will be seen for the absurdities such an approach imply.

Speaker Johnson says the mass shootings of Americans in schools, churches, restaurants, social gatherings, ad infinitum, is not attributable to the millions of modern rapid-fire weapons and devastating bullets that rip human bodies apart but is “a matter of the human heart.” Gun enthusiasts often say, “our thoughts and prayers are with the families whose loved ones’ bodies have been eviscerated by mass shootings.” Thoughts and prayers are important. My belief is that it is the thinking, or mindset of inerrantists and originalists that is at fault in our legal and governmental travails.

My prayer is that the insane literalist reading of the Bible and the absurd interpretation of the Constitution as a holy inspired document whose meanings cannot deviate from the way Americans understood them centuries ago, will soon perish from the earth.


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