Republicans and The Big C

by Brendan Hoyt

No, not the T.V. show. The “C” I’m talking about is the Constitution. Republican politics is rife with what can only be described as Constitutional fetishism. While this may not necessarily seem like a terrible thing – after all, respecting the Constitution is considered by almost everyone to be a core American principle – a problem arises when the text of the document itself becomes secondary to the symbol.

It’s worth noting that a great debate can be had, and has been had throughout the course of American history, about the proper role of the federal government as outlined in the Constitution. There is nothing wrong with that particular three dimensional tug of war. It’s a vital part of the democratic process. However, that debate requires that both sides understand the Constitution on at least a basic level, although it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect more of elected members of Congress. The Republicans have been uniquely strident in their ignorance of the Constitution, and throughout a rather stunning series of actions, have repeatedly favored its symbolic invocation over its legal significance.

One of the most recent examples of this often jaw-dropping ignorance was when Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain declared the following when asked by Chris Wallace of Fox News whether a community should be allowed to ban the building of a mosque:

They could say that. They are objecting to the fact that Islam is both a religion and set of laws, Sharia law. That is the difference between any one of our other traditional religions where it’s just about religious purposes. The people in the community know best. I happen to side with the people in the community.

Obviously, the banning of the construction of a religious building based solely on the religion in question is blatantly un-Constitutional. There is a common misunderstanding, mostly in conservative, but increasingly in liberal circles, about how democracy and the Constitution work. The purpose of the Constitution is to override democracy, to avoid what the Federalist Papers called “the violence of majority faction”. The majority doesn’t need their religion, speech, etc. protected; the minority does. It doesn’t matter whether the majority of people in a community don’t want a mosque built because they don’t approve of Islam. The entire reason we have a Constitution, including the Freedom of Religion, is to avoid what Cain was advocating.

Of course, Cain walked his statements back later, which is of little consequence or meaning. Few politicians say egregious things without providing a winking walkback later on. His later apology was especially disingenuous considering that this was the second time he had advocated horrendously un-Constitutional policies in defense of the Constitution itself. Glenn Beck and Herman Cain had previously had the following conversation:

BECK: So wait a minute. Are you saying that Muslims have to prove their, that there has to be some loyalty proof?

CAIN: Yes, to the Constitution of the United States of America.

BECK: Would you do that to a Catholic or would you do that to a Mormon?

CAIN: Nope, I wouldn’t. Because there is a greater dangerous part of the Muslim faith than there is in these other religions. I know that there are some Muslims who talk about, “but we are a peaceful religion.” And I’m sure that there are some peace-loving Muslims.

In Article VI, paragraph 3, the Constitution states the following:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

Cain would like to request a religious test… in order to protect a document that declares that there shall be no religious test. It may be a cheap shot, but should we expect much more from someone who doesn’t even know the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution:

None of what he quoted is in the Constitution, but should we expect much more from any Republican when their leader in the House makes the exact same mistake:

I’d be willing to give Boehner a pass on this, but he is holding a copy of the Constitution in his hand, referring basically to how familiar he is with it, and referring directly to a section, while reading a prepared speech. The larger issue here isn’t even that these politicians make these horrible mistakes, but that the crowds eat it up. As an anecdotal example of this same problem, I was recently having a conversation with an older Republican and he flatly did not believe me when I stated the text of the First Amendment. He was shocked that the first words of the First Amendment are “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

How can we expect the government to be properly run when one of our political parties shows this level of incredible ineptitude in both the history and law of the United States, and is basically awarded for it with votes?