Guns, Bibles, and Constitutions: Why Evangelical Readings of Scripture Should Not Inform our Constitutional Rights
The word “literal” seems to have fallen out of favor with even the most conservative of Bible commentators. Questioning someone by asking “Do you take that literally?” is less of an invitation to conversation and more a snide retort of modern disbelief. Characterizing someone with a “literal” interpretation of creation and sexuality, as examples, can derail any civil conversation. And those with a conservative or traditional understanding of the Bible have made pains to show that antiquated or wooden interpretations are not the same as “literal”. Conversations near the center have tended to eschew words like literal in exchange for what might be referred to as the “plain reading” of the text. This might be a way forward in talking about an ancient document, its authorship, authority and relevance today. While this change in vocabulary is minor, it has helped conversation between right and left-wing flanks in different theological camps.
Unfortunately, as the conversation about the Bible is, um… evolving, the conversation around politics has stalled on the interpretation of literalists and progressives. This does not pertain to the Bible, but America’s second favorite ancient text with wisdom for today: the Constitution.
Once the watchword was “living document”, as in treating the document as something with an older context but applicable today, hence ‘living’ insofar as it is being translated and adapted. But with fears of relativism and a “slippery slope”, the term “living” might not be helpful. It’s become a shibboleth in much the same way Biblical commentators used the term “metaphorical”. Rather than the term literal, conservatives have used the constitutional synonym: original intent. Claiming original intent can serve as a conversation stopper the way that the term “literal” used to. On both the right and the left, once the term literal, living, or original intent is thrown down, we rarely get nice conversations.
But all this to say: despite the close proximity of the Bible and the Constitution on the shelves of many red-blooded Americans, treating one like the other is a recipe for disaster. James Madison, speaking to a crowd convened during the Constitutional Convention reminded his listeners:
"That the people have an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform or change their government, whenever it be found adverse or inadequate to the purposes of its institution."
Thus what we might do to the Constitution is unlike the prescription from the book of Revelation to not add or take away a word from this message (sure, that specifically applies to the book of Revelation but has been taken to be a rule of thumb for general conservative Biblical scholarship). Whether we make an argument from a “living” Constitution or cling to “original intent” our attempts at making the Founders into progressive pioneers or CPAC enthusiasts. We must update the Constitution and our understanding of our founding principles in light of modern living. None of us want a soldier quartered in our house, but a reading of the 4th Amendment to secure our privacy in emails and on our phones is appreciated. Similarly, the right to bear arms, even if interpreted as conservatively as possible (see Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion in the D.C. v. Heller case) it needs to be modified for a modern approach to reasonable possession of firearms. Old watchwords and shibboleths don’t help the right or the left once we have established that the 2nd Amendment secures an individual right to gun ownership, but the need to modify that right as we do with all the other Amendments (we certainly have free speech, but even that sacred cow has its restrictions).
No one, well, mostly no one, wants to take away your guns. Even if the most sweeping gun control laws ever seen were passed it would be unlikely to overturn the tradition of grandfathering laws. Did you own a fully automatic machine gun prior to 1986? Then you may still have it. A tyrannical dystopia of government thugs with unlimited power is unlikely to happen. And no one is forcing you to go to the shooting range or discuss the differences between "automatic", "semi-automatic" or "assault style" (whatever that last one means).
Proponents of gun control (which can make up almost 8 in 10 Americans depending on how you ask the question) should take into account the current interpretation of firearm ownership as interpreted by Heller and suggest restrictions accordingly. Proponents of a very broad interpretation of the 2nd Amendment should also take this moment, when the law of the land is in their favor and not immediately shut down conversations about background checks and the banning of certain styles of guns with regard to their magazine capacity.
We don’t have to be literalists, or raging progressives to note that the Constitution has always been open to change. We have the power to correct and update. We are not laboring under Holy writ with this one. We can and should have town halls and debates and votes about how we interpret the 2nd Amendment. Anything less looks like a show of bad faith and unwillingness to bargain in earnest.
It’s a big conversation that we should have been having all along. Unfortunately, the worst kind of moralizing from the left and the ugliest kind of rigid literalism on the right has stopped this conversation from happening. Even with the Supreme Court arguing in favor of the individual rights interpretation of the Second Amendment, some on the left will not budge. And hopefully, as we talk about rights and our modern technology we can leave the literalism for Sunday School and talk about a two-hundred-year-old document as something that is necessary, but also necessarily amended from time to time.