The U.S. Constitution is American Scripture like unto the Bible, says Jaroslav Pelikan, retired history professor and former graduate dean at Yale University (and a Lutheran convert to Eastern Orthodoxy).
In his stimulating Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution (Yale University Press), this specialist in Christian intellectual history compares the Old and New Testaments to Americas founding charter. In doing so, he cites 72 Supreme Court rulings, 94 Christian creeds and numerous Bible verses.
Differences between the two works are obvious. The Bible treats God and humanity while the Constitution addresses relations among humans without referring to the deity.
The books of the Bible were composed throughout centuries by many authors, the writing is separated from our own time by millenniums and they carry authority for believers living in numerous cultures. By contrast, the Constitution is a relatively recent group product from one convention thats scriptural for one nation.
But Pelikan asserts that both documents are venerable, venerated and upheld as normative by the communities they define. And, in the main thrust of the book, there are considerable similarities in how these writings are understood and applied.
The U.S. Supreme Court is the Constitutions ultimate arbiter, much as church hierarchies and councils defined authoritative interpretations of the Bible.
The Constitutions claim to speak for the populace (We the people) is paralleled by the Christian tradition that church leaders Bible interpretations need the consensus fidelium (Latin for consensus of the faithful).
Those who followed the confirmations of Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts may recall the originalist theory, which relies on the intentions of the framers who wrote the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.
Similar thinking guides especially Protestants who enshrine sola Scriptura (Scripture alone as the source of teaching), which emphasizes a biblical writers original intent and the literal meaning of the text. Pelikan compares the Constitutions framers to the New Testament apostles who passed eyewitness accounts on to the next generation and the early church fathers.
Thus in the Wittenberg Articles of 1536, Anglicans and Lutherans jointly endorsed the Bible and three ecumenical creeds in the same meaning which the creeds themselves intend and in which the approved holy fathers use and defend them.
Radical 19th-century U.S. Protestants leapt past the fathers and creeds to accept strict New Testament words. Thomas Campbell (a forerunner of Americas creedless Christian Churches, Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ) said believers should take up things just as the apostles left them ... disentangled from the accruing embarrassment of intervening ages.
Substitute framers for apostles and you have the originalist approach to the Constitution, Pelikan notes.
The competing theory sees a flexible, living Constitution, typified by Supreme Court Justice William Brennans concurring opinion in the 1962 Abington case forbidding school prayers and Bible readings. He opposed a too literal quest for the advice of the Founding Fathers for three reasons:
On the precise problem raised, history is ambiguous and could support either side.
The structure of American education has greatly changed since the republics early days.
And the nations religious makeup has become vastly more diverse.
Another notable flexibility proponent was Justice William Douglas, for instance in his majority opinion in the 1965 Griswold ruling against birth control bans. The court later used that opinions assertion of a right to privacy to abolish states abortion restrictions.
Douglas said the First Amendment implies penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance. But dissenting Justice Hugo Black, a literalist in this case, said he was unable to stretch the amendment that far.
(Also notable by Pelikan: Whose Bible Is It? recently published in paperback by Penguin.)
On the Net: Pelikan data: http://www.yale.edu/history/faculty/pelikan.html