Strict Interpretation or Relevant Application: parsing the 1st and 2nd Amendments in the 21st Century

There’s nothing like a national tragedy involving firearms to bring out all manner of “Constitutional quoters”, this author no exception. I have written before about the issues around gun control – most notably after the recent Colorado shooting, where I pointed out the absurdity of some folks on the “pry it out of my cold, dead hands” side of the debate. Here is an excerpt (paraphrased):

“One day,… a report on Muslims, religion and religious freedom was the topic du jour, and …a conversation developed whereby a certain [person] … was pronouncing (with certainty) that IF the founding fathers had known, prior to 1776, how prevalent that Islam would become, they would have never written the Constitution to protect all religions equally. Therefore, since “we know this,…” we don’t have to interpret the Constitution to protect the rights of Muslims the same way we need to protect the rights of Christians.

[He] looked rather smug after pronouncing this … but just as he was smoothing [his] tie,… [this author spoke].

“Suppose we take a modern view of the Constitution, and accept that, as you have mentioned, the founding fathers could not have possibly predicted the rise of Islam when they included religious freedom in the Constitution. Would you then consider that perhaps when crafting the 2nd Amendment and considering the simple musket, that it is possible that they could also not have possibly conceived of automatic weapons, the kind that can accommodate a 100-round magazine clip, and capable of firing a shot every second?”

[He] looked at [me] for a minute,… Then he said, “it’s not the same thing” and [walked] away, which [I] interpreted to mean that …[he] realized that he was in serious danger of losing an argument based on logic and facts.

So the moral of the story boils down to this: you can’t have your cake (interpret the Constitution to suit you concerning 1 aspect, in relation to things being different today), and eat it too (but refuse to interpret the other parts of the Constitution through the same lens).”

It is frustrating to attempt discussions with people who are dogmatically attached to “facts” that they have construed, outside of the actual reality of the matter. Let’s look at the actual statement from the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, 2nd Amendment, which was ratified on the 17th of December in 1791.

A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed

Constitutional scholars of all stripes have parsed and shredded this single statement for years, so I make no attempt today to re-interpret the words, however; I would like to put some context around the larger issue.

In the late 1700’s this country was comprised of less than 3 million people, who were almost exclusively White, and of English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh heritage and most made their living, or survived, as farmers.

By comparison, today we are close to 315 million, most of us are NOT farmers, and are certainly more diverse than the earliest settlers, as outlined in this table with data from the Census Bureau:

2011 U.S. Census data

2011 U.S. Census data

Immigration at the turn of the Colonial century was also at a minimum, while today we have inherited the influx of immigrants from all corners of the earth, and many of us have a healthy mix of revolutionaries and immigrants in our bloodlines.

In other words, we live in a very different nation today than did the founding fathers, who were just ordinary (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) men, charged with an extraordinary task. Too often, I believe, they are ascribed with supernatural, even godlike, qualities as defenders of various amendments or positions seek to justify the strict adherence to the exact meaning of the late 1700’s OR to interpret it through the lens that best suits their agenda.

This double-vision is commonly observed in groups of people who strongly favor a strict interpretation of the 2nd amendment while certain that their own 21st century interpretation of the 1st amendment is what “God and the Founding Fathers” intended.

As a refresher, the 1st amendment, also ratified as part of the Bill of Rights on the 17th of December in 1791, states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

I’m particularly struck by that first phrase, “…shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” when I hear 2nd amendment adherents like former presidential candidate (boy is that scary!) Mike Huckabee espouse a strict interpretation of the 2nd Amendment while conveniently forgetting the 1st amendment as he advocates for a return of religion to the public schools.

It’s a safe bet to assume that people like Huckabee are referring to THEIR religion, and not Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Catholicism, Judaism or even that liberal Methodist-interpretation of Protestantism.

Huckabee is a Southern Baptist, so let’s examine how his beliefs might influence the structure in our public schools.

  • Women are not equal to men, except in empty rhetoric. In practice, they are viewed as subservient and incapable of holding high office in the religious organizations of this conference. Interpretation: ladies, Home Ec is now a required course – don’t bother with the math and science – you’re not endowed by your creator for such things.
  • Homosexuality is a sin, but is forgivable. Interpretation: if you’re gay, you’re not a valid person.
  • Pregnancy is always “God’s will”, even in cases of rape and incest (which tracks with their view on the value of being a woman). Interpretation:  fetuses outrank women in importance to God and society.
  • The Bible is the “final word” though they neglect to note which version of the Bible. My interpretation: I always wonder if it’s the “eye for an eye” part where philandering preachers should get their male parts cut off,… or the “turn the other cheek” part where we should forgive terrorists  (Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”  Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. –Matthew 18:21-22)
  • There’s more, but you get the picture.

I totally and vehemently disagree with the entire platform of the Southern Baptist convention, but,… they have a right to exist, and practice as they believe, and worship in whatever manner they choose. They do not, however; have the right to impose that on the rest of us in a publicly-funded institution like the public school system.

Freedom of religion, as outlined in the 1st amendment means freedom from the forced proscription of religion, and sorry folks – it opens us up to having to tolerate some religious beliefs and practices that to us seem pretty freaky, or just downright blasphemous.

The Bottom Line
Freedom is messy, whether it’s religious freedom, which requires our kids to attend public school with, and be respectful of kids who are atheists or Southern Baptists when we are Jews; or whether it means that our neighbors can own lots of guns. The trick to navigating this messy “free nation” is the application of prudent and careful logic to what’s in the best interest of the many and a logic that applies to the times we live in – to the realities we face each day, which means that the constitution must be a living and breathing document that ebbs and flows, within careful parameters, with our evolving country and people. This also means that elections have consequences, and should be taken more seriously than the sound bytes we have grown accustomed to reacting to when voting.

I want to keep my guns; I want the right to own guns, but I also want the right to some semblance of safety in the public sphere from unstable or malicious people who have access to military-style weaponry that can kill dozens of people before anyone knows what happened.

I want the right to believe, or to NOT believe, in the religious tenets of my elected officials, or my neighbors. I want to be left in peace to freely pursue the study and practice of a particular religion or to be free from any religion, BUT; I would expect that any range of practices that run antithetical to the common decency of our society would NOT be protected under religious freedom’s 1st amendment. Human sacrifice, child abuse, rape or other crimes against human beings (which have been practiced in a number of ancient and modern/cult religions) should NEVER be shielded by the strict protections of the 1st amendment just like the right to stockpile mass quantities of automatic weapons and ammunition should be checked with common sense and an eye toward protecting society for the good of the many.

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One thought on “Strict Interpretation or Relevant Application: parsing the 1st and 2nd Amendments in the 21st Century

  1. […] Strict Interpretation or Relevant Application: parsing the 1st and 2nd Amendments in the 21st Centur… (specfictionwriter.wordpress.com) […]

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