Theological scholarship has developed insightful tools to glean deeper understanding of biblical texts by analyzing a broad spectrum of cultural and other factors which infused the writers and their audiences. This evolving discipline allows modern readers to better comprehend and apply Scriptures penned thousands of years ago. Might it also have relevance for a document from our less distant past, such as the United States Constitution?
As an example of the enhanced comprehension gained by socio-rhetorical analysis, one might consider the writings of Paul. Paul shifted his discursive method, logical structure, and sources to fit his audience. Like the Gospels themselves, sometimes Paul is trying to persuade Greeks. e.g., the “unknown God” in Acts, and employment of classic Greek rhetoric. Other times he is evangelizing to Jews, and draws upon the Judaic tradition and methodology as foundation. Elsewhere he addresses pagan idolaters, mystics, Romans, various sects of errant Christians.
Modern readers of the Bible are understandably inclined to interpret all of Pauls’ writings through a modern lens, oblivious to these fine — but very important — distinctions in Paul’s tactics. Paul is extremely adept and flexible in responding to his audience — as Christians should still be today.
Applying an exhaustic socio-rhetorical analysis to the United States Constitution is beyond the scope of this essay, but even a cursory review of this contrast between cultures old and new reveals how grossly the authors’ meaning of that document can be distorted when context is ignored. A parallel jurisprudential dispute is found in the “Framers’ intent” versus “living document” thread that has never left our Supreme Court’s decisions throughout our history — is the United States Constitution something to be preserved rigidly, or is it malleable to changing times?
The roots of our Constitution do reach back to Greek structures of government, as well as to Judeo-Christian traditions. But Aristotle endorsed human slavery, and those Spartans praised for first creating “citizen’s rights” also subjugated their neighbors into brutal servitude. Ultimately, the brilliant foundation of our Constitution stretches back to the amazing contributions to humanity of Moses, who advanced not only monotheism but a moral code, and an evolving faith in the divine worth of every soul.
These values were almost universally embraced in 1776: less so today. The great friction in our nation’s founding was not the worth of man — it was how much that worthy man could trust an unworthy government. This created the great rift that was bridged at the signing of the Constitution, but which has never left our populace: between those who do, and those who do not, favor a large and powerful federal government — between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists:
Federalist supporters battled for a strong union and the adoption of the Constitution, and Anti-Federalists fought against the creation of a stronger national government and sought to leave the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor of the Constitution, intact.
Indeed, 18th-century Anti-Federalists sounded concerns that carry a familiar echo:
When it came to national politics, they favored strong state governments, a weak central government, the direct election of government officials, short term limits for officeholders, accountability by officeholders to popular majorities, and the strengthening of individual liberties.
Together these groups mediated what has survived as our founding document — the Bill of Rights was a product of this compromise, demanded by the Anti-Federalists:
…the Antifederalists feared that before long Congress would pass oppressive taxes that they would enforce by creating a standing national army…. In spite of the diversity that characterized the Antifederalist opposition, they did share a core view of American politics. They believed that the greatest threat to the future of the United States lay in the government’s potential to become corrupt and seize more and more power until its tyrannical rule completely dominated the people. Having just succeeded in rejecting what they saw as the tyranny of British power, such threats were seen as a very real part of political life…. The most powerful objection raised by the Antifederalists, however, hinged on the lack of protection for individual liberties in the Constitution…. This was seen as a central safeguard of people’s rights and was considered a major Revolutionary improvement over the unwritten protections of the British constitution…. The Antifederalists and Federalists agreed on one thing: the future of the nation was at stake in the contest over the Constitution.
Applying these ideas to 2021, the damage to constitutional values caused by ignorance of American history is evident. It would seem that we do not agree on that “one thing” any longer. Just a brief list would include:
— The Second Amendment. Some argue that the framers never imagined modern firepower from “assault weapons” and would have opposed their common availability. Such an interpretation of the Second Amendment is laughably distant from the Framers’ intent — they wanted an armed citizenry to stave off tyranny — they would want us all to have AR-15s, or more!! (Especially lately). Additionally, these same people say “you can’t fight the federal government” as justification to ban guns. Times have changed, they say…. Perhaps they had best study the British of 1776, and the threats to patriots who rebelled.
— abortion and the “right” to privacy, gay marriage, transgender surgeries at public expense. What would these have looked like to the Framers? Many on the Left who argue that Americans should be restricted to flintlocks have no problem explosively expanding other provisions to accommodate modern culture.
— the First Amendment has morphed from “free exercise of religion” to “banning all religion,” according to modern secularists. This is only possible in a vacuum of ignorance of colonial context.
— the idea of free “inalienable” rights which cannot be impaired by government is now morphing into calls for new, very costly “rights” (to healthcare, college, housing, even income) that are created by and emanate from government.
— the electoral college was crafted in response to Shay’s Rebellion. The parallels with today’s Black Lives Matter riots are inescapable, but ignored.
The most poignant — and alarming — shift has come in the relationship between “We the People” and the federal government. Using torturous perversions to discredit, even dismantle, the United States Constitution, modern ideological efforts simultaneously embrace an even deeper dependence on an ever-more-powerful federal government. This is a seismic departure from the unbroken friction of American history between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.
But as the above list recounts, the consistent theme in the American 21st Century is to sweep aside the Anti-federalists as anachronistic, and plunge off the cliff of complete federalism. This is a divide between those who do trust the federal government, and those who do not. This modern thrust to enlarge and expand the federal government’s power and role in Americans’ lives is a repudiation of all Constitutional precepts. But more, it is a sort of sociological breach of contract — those Americans who trust the federal government seek to compel the rest of us to join their servitude. That is a violation of those historic tenets that created the most profound living document in human history, and it courts disaster.
It is well-known that the federal government has experimented on citizens with drugs, psychiatric conditioning, medical research, biological agents, LSD, even radiation. Not all Americans are persuaded that 911 was not a controlled demolition — but surely they know that the bombing of those towers was employed to justify a horrid war with a country that had nothing at all to do with the attacks. Will today’s (Democrat) federalists now pass a law that all Americans must trust the 2020 election results as well?
None of this unraveling would be possible without a re-writing, or utter ignorance, of American colonial history. Those who blindly seek to eviscerate the Constitution also seek to remove statues, and have essentially re-written American history as a narrative of exploitive racist enslavement, itself a dangerous fiction. How much did George Orwell caution against such forces? How far from our foundations can this generation stray before we must repeat the whole episode to learn anew?
Both sides claim they are the defenders of Constitutional democracy. Consider the recent effort to intrude into United States Senator Republican Senator Josh Hawley’s residence. Leftwing media reported this as “a peaceful protest,” yet rioters are seen trying to enter the Senator’s home: his wife was understandably terrified. A lead protester with a bullhorn yelled:
We’re not gonna let people hold our democracy hostage. We’re not going to let them infringe on our rights, and the ballots have been counted and it’s over, and democracy is under attack. What do we do when democracy is under attack? We’re not gonna let some fascist, racist, and ignorant people come into our town and into our community…. So therefore, we’re going to hold political figures accountable who are trying to swindle the election, swindle democracy, and don’t give a rat’s ass about the American people.
So, in order to protect “their rights,” they will decide what others get to do — travel, opinions, even have peace in their own homes. The Constitution is subverted, ignorantly, as the New Tyranny presents itself as the Great Liberty. Only ignorance of the foundations of our nation (the socio-rhetorical context of our founding document, if you will), permit such deterioration. We are living in TS Eliot’s Wasteland — no shared culture, or morality, or even community.
The Federalist Party essentially evaporated by 1816, but the Jeffersonian Republicans continued on:
Led by Thomas Jefferson, whom they helped elect to the presidency for two terms (1801-1809), the Republicans believed in individual freedoms and the rights of states. They feared that the concentration of federal power under George Washington and John Adams represented a dangerous threat to liberty.
The battle then, as today, was contentious. Many Anti-Federalists planned to boycott even a vote, absent a Bill of Rights. In Pennsylvania, they had to be rounded up or it would not have been ratified:
extraordinarily coercive measures were taken to force Antifederalists to attend. Antifederalists were found at their boarding house and then dragged through the streets of Philadelphia and deposited in the Pennsylvania State House with the doors locked behind them. The presence of these Antifederalists against their will, created the required number of members to allow a special convention to be called in the state, which eventually voted 46 to 23 to accept the Constitution.
That Republican Party of Jefferson supposedly morphed into today’s Democrats, but it is hard to see…. The lines between two sides of Americans seems to have never left us — or have they?
A View of Today’s Division
Let us take a socio-rhetorical gander at today’s America. It is largely secular, repudiating the Judeo-Christian beliefs that infused the Constitution. The two sides have broken their truce — the Federalists wish to eliminate “Individual liberties” as anachronistic tools of oppression by racists, not bulwarks against government oppression. That is, the Left seeks to renege on that historic compact, and reboot with something undefined, unilateral, and undemocratic.
If this sounds controversial, it is hardly difficult to prove. Antifa calls to ban hate speech, ignoring a long line of Supreme Court cases that shield it. (Calling people racist without evidence is hateful, and maybe should be illegal…). The BLM political movement repeatedly invokes Critical Race Theory, proclaiming “we must not use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” That is, the cheat. One set of rights for us, another for you. All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.
This new ideology (unimaginable to any of the founders) alleges Christianity did not liberate people from slavery, or improve prisons, create hospitals, or build schools for blacks and Indigenous people’s — it oppressed them and did nothing else, and must be removed. Race and slavery are THE core issues for Americans, and all else (including the Bill of Rights) must bow in recognition (servitude). And who will eliminate subconscious racism, rewrite the past, and usher in our New Utopia? Why the, new federal government, of course — or maybe an international one, unhampered by those pesky restraints about “God” and “inalienability.”
And here we see the central role of historiography: in how we perceive the socio-political and cultural influences that shaped our society. The only way to eliminate the Constitution and impose totalitarianism is to miseducate all those values and the uniqueness of man that gave rise to American exceptionalism, itself deemed evil. An insightful writer warns us of
the rising specter of man’s hostility to man in the collapse of religious authority and its corresponding duty to teach virtue. Disordered polities and disordered peoples emerge when religious authority and the self-control it teaches to mankind begin to erode. As virtue fails and men descend, secular political authority fills the gap with police, surveillance, and the totalitarian temptation.
This observable truth is lost on the new ideology, which shares almost no socio-rhetorical resemblance to the world that gave humble rise to our mighty Constitution. Without the compromise embraced in 1790, that compact becomes a Phoenix that may never rise again. For the “New Federalists” to presume that the Anti-Federalists will now line up for dystopian federal domination, reveals the deep chasm into which America is now plunging, headlong.
This is not an evolution of thought, or a new blend of ideas: this is divorce.
May the God of our fathers save us.