I think this is yet another area where Jack’s analogy (or really, Sandy Levinson’s analogy, which Jack credits generously) between constitutional faith and religious faith, between the Bible and the Constitution, is highly instructive. The Protestant idea that we all can read and interpret the Word for ourselves is just that—an idea. It is an important idea for reasons I’ll say something about in a second, but it’s somewhat aspirational. One can, and some people do, believe in the authority or even the inerrancy of the Bible without reading it much (or at all). It is also possible to read it without understanding it very well. Most people today report that they find Biblical text hard to understand (although the irony is not lost on me that the survey I just linked to saying so was conducted by the Vatican).
Luckily, if you have a hard time reading or understanding your Bible or your Constitution, help is on the way! Many experts and leaders—elites, as Doug says—stand ready to help by offering interpretations, often complete with textual citations, that ordinary people can understand (and there is no need for most people to actually go look up the citations). Very often these authorities offer their interpretations in a manner that is charismatic, memorable, and convincing. Their interpretations are all the more convincing when they happen to square with one’s own pre-existing beliefs about what the Bible or Constitution ought to say or mean.
So does all this mean the Protestant idea has no practical effect? Quite the contrary. The Protestant idea has an extremely important effect. The normative premise that we all are able to read and interpret the text for ourselves means that we do not have to trust the priests in the temple; we do not have to trust the Justices who emerge from behind the curtain of the Court. We get to decide for ourselves who to trust, whose interpretive authority to respect. This is, as Jack says, a great theology for dissent. We can decide we agree with people who say that on a particular question, all nine Justices got it wrong.
This is why Jack’s conception of constitutional Protestantism is linked in a such a deep way with his account of the role social movements play in constitutional change. But in my view, the mechanism by which constitutional Protestantism empowers social movements to make constitutional changes has little to do with ordinary people literally reading the constitutional text and coming up with their own interpretations of its meaning. Read More