In a display of faux piety, the 112th Congress opened its first day of business by reading aloud the Constitution of the United States. Referring to it as "our sacred text", one-by-one, over 130 Members of Congress queued up to participate, each solemnly reading a few words before giving way to a colleague who would read a few more.
The entire affair was cloaked in the ritualism and reverence of a religious ceremony and might have been dismissed as harmless, though a bit blasphemous, were it not for its deeper purpose.
This tendency to make "idolatrous worship of the American nation", its rituals, artifacts, and places, is as old as the country itself. In times of war or social distress, such behavior has always been more pronounced. What is of concern is when this "idolatry" is not projected as a unifying force bringing Americans together to confront a common threat. In fact, more often than not, when we see this phenomenon emerge it is to elevate and consecrate a particular interpretation of "America" in order to use it as a club against opponents.
There were aspects of this in evidence in the chauvinism used to mobilize support for World War I. In the post war period, the intensity of these feelings morphed into an anti-foreign-born hysteria. Much the same was at work in the World War II era, spawning another bout of xenophobia, and again during the fractious civil rights/Vietnam War era with "states rights"/ pro-war advocates claiming to be the true patriots, denouncing their fellow American civil rights/pro-peace advocates as "traitors."
Now with 9/11, two disastrous and unresolved wars, economic collapse, and the loss of confidence in the institutions of government, we are once again seeing the emergence of a movement bent on usurping "America" and its symbols to promote particular political goals. We saw this tendency begin to play out, in little though telling ways, during the Bush administration. It became especially pronounced during the 2008 election as supporters of Republican candidates John McCain and Sarah Palin wrapped themselves in the American flag, claiming to be the true patriots, while casting doubt on Barack Obama's commitment to the nation (and even on his being an American citizen). Much was made of the fact that Obama didn't place his hand on his heart during the singing of the National Anthem or that he didn't wear a "flag pin" on his lapel, etc. This elevation of trivial and arbitrary practices into required rituals is more the work of a religious cult than politics. And the notion that only those who share a particular set of ideas and practices are adherents of the "true faith" is itself the hallmark of doctrinaire religion, not politics.
Now with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the "Tea Party" in the lead, this claim of being the "real American patriots" facing down opponents who threaten the country is full blown. They make much of collective displays of patriotism, casting themselves as latter day revolutionaries who are saving the Republic. In their minds, it is not that they "also" love America and want to defend its Constitution -- rather it is "only" they who love America and they are fighting to "take our country back" -- with the implication being that it was in "alien hands" not just an opposing party.
This is what brought us to this ritual reading of what they call "our sacred text" and their insistence that all new legislation cite the Constitutional authority granting Congress the right to consider such a measure. What this is about, of course, is the Tea Party's aversion to "big government" and their belief that the policies put in place by Democrats (whether health care reform, an economic stimulus, new regulations for the financial sector, etc) have violated some article of faith of the "American creed".
What is strange is that even while Congress is reading the Constitution, giving it near scriptural status as "sacred text" most Americans, from right to left, have no idea what it is or what's in it. In the first place it is not "sacred". It was written by men, and has been changed by men (although, one would not have learned this listening to this reading, since the Republican leadership only allowed a version to be read that omitted those embarrassing parts that had been amended over time -- those, for example, dealing with slavery or women). In addition, Congress, under both parties, has repeatedly passed laws that have violated the Constitution's fundamental principles. Polls show that less than one half of Americans know exactly what the Constitution is (many confuse it with the Declaration of Independence), and a mere few percent can name a majority of the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution (known as the "Bill of Rights"). In fact, provisions put in place during the Bush Administration and maintained by the Obama White House have gutted fundamental rights guaranteed by more than one-half of the Bill of Rights -- without the Tea Party and company raising a peep.
It is this that makes the entire situation so worrisome. This is not about reality or politics, it is something quite different. We are not seeing opponents of the president engage in rational debate. What they are doing is more akin to the "faithful" confronting the "infidels". In this scenario, the "believers" have made religious dogma of their views, transformed them, in their own minds, into the one and true interpretation of the "American faith" and they are ready to denounce those who disagree as enemies of the Republic. They are not yet in charge, and so the damage they may do is still limited. But the ritual this group foisted upon the Congress the other day shows they have influence and will use it to run roughshod over the institution, with too few of their colleagues willing to call them out.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.