Belief Blogging, Protestant Liberalism, and Fundamentalist Originalism

Paul Harvey

We're a bit tardy in taking note of this, but for those who haven't been following, CNN is the latest entrant into the religious blogosphere, with CNN Belief Blog (now added to our blog sideroll under "BlogFavs"). Noted religious historian Stephen Prothero is one of the contributors. His early post "Souter V. Scalia at Harvard Yard" is an excellent start. In it, he addresses the connection between methods of reading the Bible and the Constitution which doubtless many of us discuss in the classroom, and Americans used to (in the 19th century, anyway) argue about constantly. Prothero discusses former Justice David Souter's address to the Harvard graduates at commencement this year (full text at the link); here's a taste of his analysis:

Although he drew on the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes for his observation “that certainty generally is illusion and repose is not our destiny,” the spirit that animated his final remarks derived more from the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose work called attention to the unintended consequences of efforts by mere mortals to grasp the reins of history. The “fair reading model” is driven, Souter concluded, by an understandable yet nonetheless naive “longing for a world without ambiguity” - by the “basic human hunger for certainty and control.” . . . just as there are Constitutional originalists who read passages from the Constitution as absolute, there are Biblical fundamentalists who read individual passages from scripture as absolute. Souter is not one of them, in part because he is steeped in Episcopal tradition, which has historically resisted the “proof text” method of fundamentalists in the name of reading the Bible as a whole.

The irony is that in certain religious freedom cases (notably Smith in 1989, where the litigant was fired from his position as a counselor due to peyote use in the Native American Church), Scalia et al have been quite capable of exercising judicial activism in the name of compelling state interest, and without the fig leaf of "originalism."


Christopher said…
If you're a bit tardy on noting the CCN Belief Blog, I'm entirely late on noticing it at all. So I really appreciate the heads up on this, as it looks like a worthwhile venture. And speaking of Prothero, has anyone read his latest book? Could we get someone to review it for the blog Paul?
Paul M. said…

You describe originalism as a "fig leaf," implying that this theory of constitutional interpretation is a facade for baser political motives. This would not be novel.

Historians who dislike a given belief system often dismiss it out of hand. Thus the rise of modern conservatism was a racist reaction to the Civil Rights movement. Likewise, fundamentalists were futilely reacting against the dawning of modernity.

Both interpretations, which were once the historical consensus, have come under serious question. Conservatism and fundamentalism were not simply empty vessels filled with racism and paranoia.

Furthermore, shouldn't we religious historians be especially leery of such arguments? After all, we steadfastly believe that religion has descriptive power, that it describes something and is not just a facade for base motivations.

Paul Harvey said…
Chris: I'll see about getting someone to post about Steve's new book (I haven't had a chance to look at it yet).

Paul M.: I haven't made any such arguments about conservatism or fundamentalism -- quite the contrary, I have explicitly rejected that argument about conservatism, at least as some sort of exclusive or primary explanation.

Scalia obviously brings a strong conservative Catholic sensibility into his jurisprudence. That's fine. But let's not confuse that with some sort of mystical "originalism." This isn't a "facade for base motivations," it just means he brings his own sensibility into judging like everyone else.
Mark P said…
Paul & Paul M.,

If originalism is not always a fig leaf, it certainly sometimes is.

"Thus the rise of modern conservatism was a racist reaction to the Civil Rights movement. Likewise, fundamentalists were futilely reacting against the dawning of modernity."

You are caricaturing, yes? Not taking these positions as your own?

Part of the irony of the fundamentalist movement, by the way, is that it clutches to some of the fading illusions of modernity (radical individualism, objectivity, a kind of outdated, 'factualist' hermeneutic) just as those very ideas were nearing exhaustion. Sure they were and are fighting Darwinism and scientific evolution, but then Darwin was pretty late to the modernity party to begin with.