Friday, October 29, 2010

More WWJD Constitutional Misinterpretation Sightings

The WWJD (What Would Jefferson Do?) School of Constitutional Interpretation has reared its ugly head again in the 2010 campaign. Preachy proponents of the preposterous view that Thomas Jefferson's sentiments expressed in a letter to Baptists written years after the writing of the Constitution are somehow binding on Constitution interpretation are reported to be lecturing another candidate on how he should ignore the plain language and the clear intent of the First Amendment in favor of the secularist view that the First Amendment means exactly the opposite of what it says.

This time, it's happening in Denver, Colorado.

If you are worried about being accosted by one of these people (careful of being wrestled to the ground and having your head stomped on), just be sure to carry with you an actual copy of the Bill of Rights as well as a list of the states that had established religions at the time of the Constitution's signing.

Once they begin their sermon, just begin reciting it and chanting the names of the states. After they hear it several times, they will begin sputtering about "separation of church and state" as if it was part of the language of the Amendment even though its not.

After a few more minutes, they will begin babbling something about the 14th Amendment and how it somehow applied to the states the promise that established state religions would not be disestablished by Congress, resulting in exactly the opposite effect.

Keep reciting the Amendment and chanting the state names until they have become fully logically incoherent. As soon as they are laying there, panting on the ground, exhausted from their attempts to justify their position in the face of the rational, linguistic, and historical facts, just fold up your copy of the Bill of Rights and stick it in their pocket on the distant chance that they will actually read it and realize how bone-headed their position is.

It's all you can do.


KyCobb said...


It would be interesting to see what would happen if the Court ever interpreted the Constitution to allow official churches again. I can only imagine the (political) warfare that would break out amongst social conservatives when the General Assembly began debating which sect would be established as the official church of the Commonwealth. What I can't figure out is, why a religious person would think that politicians would be the best people to make theological decisions in a free soceity. Do you really need Frankfort to tell you that the Kentucky Baptist Convention is better than the Catholic Church?

Having state supported churches is great for promoting atheism and agnosticism as well. Churches on welfare don't have to try as hard to win converts. Eventually we could have lots of empty, picturesque churches, just like England, a theocracy of agnostics.

What I'm saying is, be careful what you wish for.

Martin Cothran said...


If you completely misinterpret the First Amendment, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you would completely misinterpret my post.

You clearly think that from the fact that I don't think the First Amendment restricts established state religions that I therefore think they're a good idea. Which does not follow at all.

In fact, I don't think they're a good idea. Many of the founders may have thought they weren't a good idea either. BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN THE FIRST AMENDMENT RESTRICTED THEM.

The strict separatists who interpret the First Amendment to say what it doesn't say do so because they so desperately want it to reflect their views.

Then they go and assume that, just because their own view of the First Amendment is determined almost exclusively by their psychology, that's what the rest of us do too.

I would prefer, however, to simply believe what it says.

KyCobb said...


Even if you don't like official state churches, you are wishing for the opening of Pandora's Box, apparently based on the principle that you know more about how to interpret the Constitution than virtually everyone who has sat on the Supreme Court for the last few decades.

There is an important legal concept called Stare Decisis, which basically means you don't unsettle people's expectations based on precedent without a really good reason. For a long time, Americans have been used to making their own faith decisions without having the state tell them what they should believe about God. I can't think of any good reason why the states should be allowed to create mini-theocracies now, and apparently even you think its a bad idea, so stare decisis would dictate that there is no reason to reverse decades of precedent prohibiting it.

Francis Beckwith said...


Either Martin's historical argument works or not. But it is no refutation of it to say that if one believes it, then certain bad consequences are possible. For bad consequences may actually result from a correct interpretation of the Constitution. For example, the Constitution allows the states to permit casino gambling. Casino Gambling is a very stupid idea, since it does not create wealth (but merely redistributes it), nurtures bad habits in citizens, and does not advance the common good. It is the root of countless pathologies. And yet, given the Constitution's framework for the states--republican government--it is permissible. Moreover, I wouldn't want to change that principle, since federal control is worse than the risk of gambling. So, I defend the principle.

KyCobb said...


"it is no refutation of it to say that if one believes it, then certain bad consequences are possible."

That may be because you're not an attorney. Judges don't reverse decades of court precedent purely as a matter of principle-there generally has to be a really good reason to do so.

One Brow said...

Francis J. Beckwith,

Martin Cothran's historical idea does not work.

Originally, the Bill of Rights was concevied of allowing the individual states to allow things like double jeopardy, torture of prisoners, or quartering soldiers. Only the federal government was denied these privileges. Since then, almost every other restriction in the first eight amendments has been extended to a restriction against the states. If you want to say the Establishment clause is an exception, you need to make an argument for why it is the exception.