We continue our meditation with lawyer-with-a-conscience Peter Gabel.* When we put the “founding fathers” on a pedestal, hagiography like, and claim they had all the answers about everything right up to today, we are engaged in fetishism or idolatry. It boggles the mind that any human being would want to spend their time pursuing the literalism of the founding document—one can recognize a parallel among religious seekers who squat on Biblical texts their whole life long.
The bureaucratic meaning reflected in the work of Barrett and others is that the judge must engage in the quite prosaic task of discerning the so-called ‘objective public meaning’ of a group of words penned in and around 1789 and applying that ancient meaning to interpreting the validity of laws and statutes today, as well as to the text of the Constitution itself.
For me, this explains Barrett’s indifference (and that of five others on the current Supreme Court) to the suffering of so many people that is going on in the world around them.
Gabel warns that this situation
…will enable Judge Barrett both to strike down progressive legislation like the Affordable Care Act, and refuse to extend constitutional protection to rights and activities not explicitly named in the original document or its amendments (such as the right to abortion and gay marriage). As a kind of legal philologist who simply interprets words from long ago according to their original public meaning, Barrett can say, ‘this activity is not liberal or conservative and does not reflect my opinions about these matters—it is rather just a matter of interpreting a text the only way it can be interpreted in accordance with democracy.
Notice how this “interpretation of texts” so parallels fundamentalist Bibliolaters who want to believe all religion is found in a book of long ago. Gabel asks:
Why should we care AT ALL about what a group of mainly 20 and 30-year old white male property-owning, in some cases slaveholders would think—as if we could know that—about what we are doing in the present-day world?
In the past 250 years,
…magnificent social movements rose up to advance the political and moral understanding of man-and-womankind. The idea that we should discard the wisdom that we have gained across all of that historical time when we today determine the meaning of the Constitution and the validity of democratically-passed legislation is just absurd on its face…or ought to be.
Why isn’t it?
Gabel believes that it has arisen, beginning in the 1980’s, with a growing authoritarianism that brings with it a ‘Founding Father Knows Best’ mentality.
To me, a “growing authoritarianism” is another way of talking about patriarchy at its worst–pedestal pieties, power-over dynamics, fascism, “only I can fix it” messaging. Such dynamics are burgeoning around the world in places like Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and of course the U.S. with Trumpism. Father always knows best. And, as linguist George Lakoff has pointed out, the God of fundamentalism is invariably a “Punitive Father God.”
*The article we are dialoging with can be found in: https://www.tikkun.org/amy-coney-barretts-originalism
For more on “Founding Father Knows Best,” see Peter Gabel, (https://digitalcommons.law.buffalo.edu/buffalolawreview/vol36/iss2/4/.
See Matthew Fox, The Pope’s War: How Ratzinger’s Crusade Imperiled the Church and HOW IT Can Be Saved, pp. 106-144;
Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest, pp. 179-195, 249-270.
Banner Image: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on. The Act was immediately challenged and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States. Photo by Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office, Wikimedia Commons.
Do you sense a “growing authoritarianism” happening at home and around the world and beginning in the 1980’s? Why do you think this is happening? What kind of resistance is possible and effective?
The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved
The Pope’s War offers a provocative look at three decades of corruption in the Catholic Church, focusing on Josef Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI. The final section in the book focuses on birthing a truly catholic christianity.
“This book should be read by everybody, not only for its ferocious courage, but also for its vision for what needs to be saved from the destructive forces that threaten authentic Christianity.” ~ Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope.
“In the gripping The Pope’s War, Matthew Fox takes an unwavering look at the layers of corruption in the Catholic Church, holding moral truth against power.” — Jason Berry, author of Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II