There is a discussion about intelligent design going on this morning on our discussion board, in which an upset fundamentalist reader attempts to defend the effort to push intelligent design theology on American students by saying that America’s founding fathers believed in intelligent design.
When I read this claim, I am reminded of the claims made by the right wing members of the Supreme Court, like Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas, that the United States Constitution should only be interpreted according to the intentions of its authors. It’s an odd claim to make, suggesting that words have no inherent meaning in our society other than the meaning that the people who actually speak or write them want them to have.
Fundamentally, this weird linguistic theory of the right wing legal crowd is a kind of extreme linguistic relativism. Under this sort of interpretation of language, the writer of a document or speaker of a statement gets absolute say-so about how it is to be read and used. So, the logical conclusion of the Scalia and Thomas interpretation of language is that if William Bennett says that it was in no way racist when he said, “If you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down,” we are forced to agree with William Bennet’s claims about what the statement means, and disregard the clear implications what the statement implies.
To engage in this kind of linguistic relativism is obvious folly when we are dealing with recent statements, but right wing judges like to pretend that they can sprinkle the intellectual equivalent of fairy dust and have the practice make sense when applied to the statements and writings of historical figures who are now dead. Judges like Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and John Roberts (as well as non-judges like Harriet Miers) argue that the Constitution ought to be read only as the people who wrote the Constitution wanted it to be read.
Consider the legal implications of this line of reasoning: If we were to apply their kind of legal interpretation to all legal documents, then contracts would only mean what the people who wrote them said that they meant. No matter what the words of the contract said, a person could walk into a courtroom and make arguments about what they really meant, in spite of those words, and get themselves out of the contract by talking about alternative arrangements that were really on their minds that day.
If our courts allowed this kind of nonsense to occur, then our society would fall apart. Yet, it is exactly this kind of nonsensical interpretation of the Constitution that right wing judges attempt to apply, and they do so in order to advance a political agenda that reduces the fundamental liberties guaranteed in contract by the Constitution.
It is extremely worrying, therefore, that intelligent design supporters and other kinds of Creationists engage in the Scalia-style revision of historical documents. The suggestion is now seriously being made that, because the founding fathers were supporters of intelligent design theology, the First Amendment must be re-interpreted to allow the forced teaching of intelligent design religious doctrine in public school biology classes.
Such disregard for the promises of the Bill of Rights is enough to warrant extreme skepticism of those who promote intelligent design theology. However, for the sake of argument, let us accept the right wing’s claims that provisions of the Constitution can be voided by claims that the writers of the Constitution didn’t really mean what they wrote.
Even if we accept this ridiculous argument, the burden lies with the fundamentalists to prove beyond a doubt that the Constitution’s authors really did want the government to force particular religious ideas about the creation of the world on American citizens. In order to foil such an attempt at proof, all that we need to do is come up with a single historical case of an author of the Constitution arguing against the kind of theocratic agenda now promoted by the Christian fundamentalist intelligent design crowd.
Of course, such an historical case is easy to find. Let me pick Thomas Jefferson, an unquestioned member of the “founding fathers” crowd. Thomas Jefferson once wrote:
“Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blind-folded fear.”
Jefferson clearly valued doubt over faith, stating that
“It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing, than to believe what is wrong.”
Jefferson had little affection for religious zealots eager to use the power of government to force their theological beliefs on others. Jefferson said,
“On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind.”
What would Thomas Jefferson have said of the attempt to replace genuine science with Christian religious beliefs? Jefferson’s attitude about the proper outcome of the interaction of modern knowledge and Christianity is well reflected in his statement that
“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
On biblical literalism, Jefferson wrote:
“We discover [in the gospels] a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstition, fanaticism and fabrication.”
On Christian attempts to enforce orthodoxy, Jefferson said:
“I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.”
On the attempt to use government to promote religious ideas like intelligent design, Jefferson said,
“I am for freedom of religion and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.”
So there we have it: Even if we accept the game of right wing activists and pretend that the United States Constitution can only be read in the way that its authors wanted it to be read, the case of Thomas Jefferson makes it quite clear that there was not a consensus of support among the authors of the Constitution to allow for the mixing of religion and government to support theological doctrines such as intelligent design.