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Sunday, May 02, 2004

Original Intent

“When the framers of the American Constitution wrote, ‘We, the people,’ they did not mean me.” Condaleeza Rice’s comments are well-taken. Now that John Kerry’s religion has become an issue in the campaign, we should take another look at the phrase “original intent.” It doesn’t mean what we tend to think.

Political conservatives love to talk about original intent. Except when they don’t. After all, today’s conservatives do not argue that only landed white males should have the vote, although that was clearly the original intent of the founders. Political liberals love to point this out. Liberals tend to deride “strict constructionists”, those who believe original intent is the key to applying the law to the culture.

But the liberals really shouldn’t laugh too loudly at the idea. After all, they suddenly find “original intent” deeply relevant when anyone tries to introduce prayer in school or religion into politics. “Our founders originally intended a wall of separation between church and state. That wall must not be breached!” Heaven forbid.

The problem both sides have, of course, is that man’s understanding of what is best for man has changed over the years. For instance, only white men who owned land were originally thought to be responsible enough to bear the responsibility of voting. Women and people of other races were not reliable enough to undertake the responsibility. That is, the vote was restricted to rich white men because the founders had a very specific understanding of who was capable of acting responsibly.

The very fact that rich white men eventually allowed the vote to be placed on the shoulders of women and minorities demonstrates that rich white men are, in fact, capable of being swayed by facts and capable of acting responsibly. After all, the ancient Greeks, who developed the idea of democracy and upon whose example the Constitution was modeled, never permitted either group the vote.

Similar ideas can be found elsewhere in our history. For instance, despite the vaunted “wall of separation between Church and state,” many states long had religious tests for holding office. If you were not a Christian or if you did not at least profess belief in God, you could not hold state office. Why? The same rationale applied: belief in the Christian God demonstrated at least a certain willingness to be held responsible for one’s own actions. After all, if anything characterizes the Christian, it is the willingness to admit his own sinfulness, his own responsibility for the problems in the world. And that is the key to original intent.

Ultimately, the question of responsibility lies at the heart of the founders’ concerns precisely because it lies at the heart of everyone’s concerns. In this, the founding fathers were not particularly insightful. We all want people to be responsible. We just have different ideas of what that means.

The American Revolution was almost simultaneous with the French Enlightenment, indeed, the French Revolution – Enlightenment in action – would follow close on the heels of our own. With the Enlightenment, the idea of what constituted responsible character changed. For the first time, prominent men began to argue that religion was irresponsible because faith was an illusion. Only reason mattered.

Now, keep in mind that the Catholic Church has always taught that faith and reason were two wings on the same bird: the intellect could not soar to its full potential without both faith and reason. In the mid-1500’s, Luther made the rejection of this concept a center-piece of his rebellion. He explicitly said “reason is the whore of the devil”, indeed, to this day, many Protestant pastors teach substantially this idea. By the 1700’s, learned men began to deny Luther’s assertion in the strongest possible terms. This is the essence of the Enlightenment. Indeed, the Enlightenment of the mid-1700’s so strongly insisted that reason was good and useful, that its promoters entirely dispensed with the need for faith. “Crush the infamy [of Catholic Faith]!” shouted Voltaire.

Two hundred years of Protestant thought had finally generated the reaction that we are still spinning through today. It is now two hundred since the incredibly violent reaction to Protestantism that we call the Enlightenment. “Faith alone” started the endless religious wars of Europe. “Reason alone” started the endless executions of the French Revolution, the national slaughterhouse that led inexorably to the vast international slaughterhouses of national socialism (Nazism) and international socialism (Communism).

When it comes to responsibility, neither “faith alone” nor “reason alone” is good enough. Today, we see tie-dyed Voltaires combating latter-day Luthers on a host of issues, and each appeals to the fallible founding fathers as their light.

Unfortunately, the founding fathers were neither God nor gods. They were bright men doing the best they could, but men after all. They understood the goal – create a mode of government that will ensure both people and government act responsibly. They simply failed in attaining the goal. Now, they created the most spectacularly successful failure the world has ever seen. The Constitution is, after all, the oldest document ever continuously used as a national governing tool. But it is a failure. It could not be otherwise.

“Democracy,” said Winston Churchill, “is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Why? Because we are all rational sinners. Each day, we knowingly choose to act in ways that deny us communion with God. The Constitution answers works precisely because it is a document that describes how men of faith are to rationally govern themselves. The rational document only works when it works with divine faith, the faith that celebrates the central importance of reason in coming to understand the ways of both God and man. Only Catholic Faith joins the two. Only Catholicism can heal today’s crisis. To the extent that Catholicism is moribund, law – especially the American Constitution – is a dead letter. If we can say anything with certainty, we can say this: the Catholic life is God’s original intent.

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