Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Risks of Reading the Constitution Aloud

The Washington Post reports that the new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives plans to open the new session on January 6th by reading the Constitution aloud. They will also "require that every new bill contain a statement by the lawmaker who wrote it citing the constitutional authority to enact the proposed legislation."

The article goes on to quote some who dismiss these new rules as "symbolic flourishes" and "cosmetic." That is a typical reaction from a culture, especially academic culture, that has been trained for millennia to underestimate the power of rituals. But I wonder if the Tea Party advocates of these ceremonies understand their social effects either.

The U.S. Constitution, together with the Declaration of Independence, has long been ritualized in both its semantic dimension (the court decisions and legal commentaries that make up the vast literature on constitutional law) and its iconic dimension (most obviously in its shrine in the Rotunda of the U.S. National Archives which provided a memorable backdrop for Pres. Obama's speech about Guantanamo Bay in 2009). But ritualization of its third, performative, dimension lags behind. Since Congress established September 17th as Constitution Day in 2004, however, this annual event has included recitations of the Constitution's preamble by dignitaries and school children.

In a 2004 article analyzing the movement to establish or defend Ten Commandment's monuments in court houses, I suggested that it was an attempt to gain for the Bible the same iconic recognition as the Constitution. The ritualized readings of the Constitution in Congress and elsewhere could conversely be understood as (subconscious?) efforts to grant this document the status of scripture. Andrew Romano observed in Newsweek that Tea Party's rhetoric of constitutional rhetoric echoes the Christian right's rhetoric of biblical reverence in the early 1990s. Rep. Ron Paul has been the most explicit but hardly the only right-wing politician to suggest that the Constitution is divinely inspired.

Analogies between the U.S. Constitution and the Bible are actually not new. Soon after ratification it was being hailed as a product of divine providence. People still regularly repeat Supreme Court Justice William Johnson's description, in 1823, of the Constitution as "the most wonderful instrument ever drawn by the hand of man." The country's history has witnessed periodic attempts to ritualize its performance regularly through school recitation competitions and public pageants. But statements like Rep. Paul's quickly draw withering criticism from religious leaders and commentators fearful that the Bible's unique status in Christian culture may be challenged. Though many cultures and religions employ multiple scriptures without any difficulties, Protestant Christianity tends to emphasize the Bible's sole authority. Thus ritualizing the Constitution's performance, like its iconicity, risks splitting conservative religious support.

Nevertheless, repeated ritual practices frequently generate beliefs as much as reflect them. Once Congress starts reading the Constitution, it is unlikely that any American politician will try to stop the practice at some future time. This ongoing tradition of public readings could spawn imitation in other settings and may, as Tea Party supporters hope, generate even greater reverence for the country's foundational document. Doing so, however, will highlight the question of its status relative to religious scriptures in general and, in mostly Christian America, to the Bible in particular.

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