Reading the Constitution in Tea Leaves?
The recent election season was full of references to the Constitution thanks to the Tea Party movement and right-wing populist candidates, such as Rand Paul, Christine O’Donnell, and Sharron Angle. This radical new version of constitutional conservatism has been deployed as a rhetorical device against many government programs that are unpopular among conservatives. For example, “(Gay Marriage/Obamacare/Social Security) isn’t in the Constitution, so we should abolish it!” The Tea Party’s Frankenstein originalism is based on a rejection of the church/state divide, fear of big government, and selective protection of civil liberties. This “interpretation” of the Constitution threatens to undercut the rights of religious, racial, and LGBTQ minorities; harm the poor and elderly who depend on government programs; and generally diminish civil liberties that do not involve the Second Amendment right to carry an assault rifle at political rallies.
During a debate last month, failed Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell responded to her opponent’s statement that “religious doctrine doesn’t belong in our public schools” by attacking the idea that separation of church and state was in the Constitution. Apparently, O’Donnell was under the mistaken impression that the idea of a secular state was another creation of liberal “judicial activism,” rather than a concept embodied in the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment. The Delaware candidate is not the only Teabagger to hold a dangerously uninformed view of the First Amendment; Sharron Angle recently claimed, “Separation of church and state is an unconstitutional doctrine,” and Sarah Palin claimed, “The Constitution… essentially acknowledg[es] that our unalienable rights…come from God.” This interpretation of the First Amendment threatens the rights of minority religious groups whose beliefs are not represented by the imaginary Biblical Constitution that O’Donnell and friends are consulting.
Palin and her followers have repeatedly mauled the Constitution in favor of their Grizzly Bear agenda. On a visit to rural Alaska, Palin confronted a local schoolteacher who was displaying a “Worst Governor Ever” poster. After confronting the teacher and demanding an explanation, Palin attempted to ease the tension by reminding the teacher, “(I’m) out there fightin’ for Americans to be able to have a Constitution protected so that we can have free speech … To elect candidates who understand the Constitution, to protect our military interests so that we can keep on fightin’ for our Constitution that will protect some of the freedoms that evidently are important to you too.” Unfortunately, several Palin supporters proceeded to tear down the schoolteacher’s sign to applause from the crowd. Apparently, freedom of speech only applies to Palin-approved speech.
One Tea Party candidate admitted his ignorance of the Constitution. Wisconsin Senate candidate Ron Johnson admitted in an interview, “I sat down and read the Constitution thoroughly, probably five, six times. It is not an easy document to read. Unless you study it in detail, it’s hard to study.” At least Senator-elect Johnson bothered to read the document. While increased dialogue about the Constitution is laudable, it is disappointing to see this nuanced, sexy document used as a bludgeon by hacks like O’Donnell and Palin. As much as I look forward to watching Palin engage her family and friends in a robust Constitutional debate on her reality show, it seems that most Tea Partiers could benefit from some of Senator-elect Johnson’s honest Constitutional analysis. Let us hope that O’Donnell takes a page from his book and brings her pocket Constitution to the next election.