America's Holy Writ

By Romano, Andrew | Newsweek, October 25, 2010 | Go to article overview

America's Holy Writ


Romano, Andrew, Newsweek


Byline: Andrew Romano

Tea Party evangelists claim the constitution as their sacred text. Why that's wrong.

Since winning the republican senate primary in Delaware last month, Christine O'Donnell has not had trouble getting noticed. When the Tea Party icon admitted to "dabbl[ing] into witchcraft" as a youngster, the press went wild. When she revealed that she was "not a witch" after all, the response was rabid. O'Donnell has fudged her academic credentials, defaulted on her mortgage, sued a former employer, and campaigned against masturbation, and her efforts have been rewarded with round-the-clock coverage. Yet few observers seem to have given her views on the United States Constitution the same level of consideration. Which is too bad, because O'Donnell's Tea Party take on our founding text is as unusual as her stance on autoeroticism. Except that it could actually have consequences.

Last month, the candidate spoke to 2,000 right-wing activists at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. She wore a black suit and pearls, and swept on stage to the sound of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." Most of the speech was unremarkable: a laundry list of conservative platitudes. But near the end she veered into stranger--and more revealing--territory. O'Donnell once told voters that her "No. 1" qualification for the Senate is an eight-day course she took at a conservative think tank in 2002. Now she was revisiting its subject: the Constitution.

The Founders' masterpiece, O'Donnell said, isn't just a legal document; it's a "covenant" based on "divine principles." For decades, she continued, the agents of "anti-Americanism" who dominate "the D.C. cocktail crowd" have disrespected the hallowed document. But now, finally, in the "darker days" of the Obama administration, "the Constitution is making a comeback." Like the "chosen people of Israel," who "cycle[d] through periods of blessing and suffering," the Tea Party has rediscovered America's version of "the Hebrew Scriptures" and led the country into "a season of constitutional repentance." Going forward, O'Donnell declared, Republicans must champion the "American values" enshrined in our sacred text. "There are more of us than there are of them," she concluded.

By now, O'Donnell's rhetoric should sound familiar. In part that's because her fellow Tea Party patriots--Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, the guy at the rally in the tricorn hat--also refer to the Constitution as if it were a holy instruction manual that was lost, but now, thanks to them, is found. And yet the reverberations go further back than Beck. The last time America elected a new Democratic president, in 1992, the Republican Party's then-dominant insurgent group used identical language to describe the altogether different document that defined their cause and divided them from the heretics in charge: the Bible. The echoes of the religious right in O'Donnell's speech--the Christian framework, the resurrection narrative, the "us vs. them" motif, the fixation on "values"--aren't coincidental.

From a legal perspective, there's a case to be made that O'Donnell's argument is in-accurate. The Constitution is a relentlessly secular document that never once mentions God or Jesus. And nothing in recent jurisprudence suggests that the past few decades of governing have been any less constitutional than the decades that preceded them. But the Tea Party's language isn't legal, and neither is its logic. It's moral: right vs. wrong. What O'Donnell & Co. are really talking about is culture war.

When Barack Obama took office, experts rushed to declare an end to the old battles over race, religion, and reproductive rights--whether because of Obama's alleged healing powers, or the Great Recession, or both. But these analyses ignored an important reality: at heart, the culture wars were really never about anything as specific as abortion or gay marriage. Instead, as James Davison Hunter wrote in Culture Wars, the book that popularized the term, the conflicts of the 1990s represented something bigger: "a struggle over--who we have beenEwho we are now, andEwho we, as a nation, will aspire" to be. …

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