What the Tea Party And Evangelicals Both Get Wrong

Tea Party politicians arranged for the Constitution to be read out loud in the House of Representatives last month. The recitation of America's founding document was performed for the first time in the 221-year history of the House and represents the Tea Party's insistence that we must go back to the Constitution.

The landmark event has some interesting implications to help better understand some of the Tea Party's ideology. Politicians like Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin have incessantly called for the American people to elect politicians with strong loyalty to the constitution, America's foundational text, so that the future of this country will be more constitutional and thus more American. As part of their strategy for Congress to rule constitutionally they arranged for the constitution to be read aloud for all to hear.

By insisting on a public reading of the text, Tea Party politicians imply that a mere reading of the text will cause people to be more constitutional, the assumption being that a clear and unbiased reading of the constitution will create more constitutional politicians (which conveniently for Bachmann and other Tea Party members translates to agreement with conservative political values).

What is interesting and troubling at the same time is that the Tea Party is using the Constitution the same way that so many fundamentalist Christians use the Bible. The basic idea for fundamentalist Christians is that simply reading the Bible will cause you to arrive at a basic meaning that all rational beings should automatically interpret -- the plain sense meaning. They deny any kind of subjectivity in the reading process; there is no textual agency taking place. The text speaks its meaning to the passive reader.

Many Christians place enormous emphasis on the text of the Bible as the ultimate source of information and compliment their high view of Scripture with an equally high view of an interpreter's ability to objectively read the text and arrive at the same answers. Much the same way, Tea Party proponents have elevated the Constitution's status and claimed that every reasonable person should read it and automatically come over to their side.

A belief that a text speaks its own meaning and should convince someone based on its own inherent meaning not only ignores the past half century of philosophical thought, but it brims with the arrogance required to claim that everyone who disagrees with you is either too incompetent or too dishonest to acknowledge the obvious meaning. A personal claim to objective reading exhibits an inability to claim the subjective influences that alter each person's perception and gets in the way of healthy dialogue whether political or religious.
When the GOP, influenced by its Tea Party members, read the constitution in January, it offered the noble claim of an attempt to elevate the constitution's influence in congress. However, under the surface it was nothing but a power-play, an attempt to give the allusion that the Tea Party is more constitutional and therefore more justified in their views. The text itself has no inherent meaning, and reading it out loud will do nothing to change anything. Undoubtedly, the reading simply reinforced the opinions and viewpoints already held by all those who listened to its words.

The most alarming piece of all of this is that those who read the Bible as a hard and fast foundationalist text for contemporary ethics (such as the condemnation of homosexuality) are often the same people who deny their reading of the Constitution is a subjective interpretation. The same logic that fundamentalist readers of the Bible use to argue against gay marriage is also used to lock down borders and prevent hard working immigrants from basic American rights and freedoms. They are both purported to be foundational texts with plain meanings, which conveniently happen to perfectly align with all of the conservative religious and political agendas.

Constitution-focused politicians often compare our founding document to Scripture; the narrative of America as God's Nation and the constitution as the means of the country remaining in divine favor is well documented. But as far as I'm concerned, the only real connection between the two texts is how they are used as foundational power moves to shut down healthy dialogue and openness to others.