Interpreting Scripture & the U.S. Constitution

Jesus told his disciples in his famous Sermon on the Mount: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Commonly known as “the golden rule,” this maxim has formed the bedrock of Western ethics for two millennia and is widely considered by philosophers to constitute the essence of the moral law. Yet, this simple dictum belies an elusive message that has led to its commonly being misinterpreted. Quite simply, when these words are taken at face value, Jesus could not possibly have meant what he said.

This occurred to me one day as I lay on the sofa, writhing in agony from a bout of influenza. Wishing to provide me with some small measure of comfort, my wife bent down, threw her arms under my shoulders, and applied a gentle but firm squeeze, at which I shrieked, “What are you doing? Can’t you see I’m in pain?”

“I’m only giving you a hug,” she replied, obviously not a little hurt by my outburst.

“I don’t want a hug,” I said, this time more contritely, feeling a bit guilty. “I only want to be left alone.”

You see, when I am ill or in pain, I care only to withdraw into my own private world, left alone to weather out my misery in solitude. I don’t want anyone to touch me or even to talk to me. My wife, however, is the exact opposite. No matter how much she is suffering, she always welcomes the embrace of a family member. By hugging me, then, she was merely applying the golden rule as she understood it. She was doing to me as she would have me do to her. The problem was that we had totally different desires regarding the way we wanted people to treat us. By doing to me as she would have me do to her, she was actually treating me in a way I did not wish to be treated. Conversely, by withholding my own touch to her when she was ill, I was treating her in a way she did not wish to be treated.

This anecdote illustrates the problem in trying to interpret the golden rule in isolation from its broader context. If we literally do to others as we would have them do to us, we will sometimes act in ways that cause them hurt, which I hardly think was what Jesus had in mind. We know this because Jesus also told us to love others as we love ourselves, and knowingly aggravating someone by doing something you know they don’t like is not exercising love. So, then, what Jesus really meant was: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, assuming that both of you share the same desires. But wait. Jesus could not even have meant that. Consider another example:

A disabled man with no scruples about euthanasia finds his life no longer worth living. He solicits assistance from his like-minded wife, asking that she help him commit suicide. Now, if the woman takes the golden rule at face value (even our revised version above), she will certainly comply, for that is how she would wish to be treated. In doing so, she would indeed be obeying the letter of the law as Jesus prescribed it. But would she be obeying the spirit of that law?

To comprehend the spirit of that command, one would have to know Christ’s intent, and the only way to know that is by considering the broader context of his teachings. Yes, the Lord did say that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us, but he also said many other things of moral import, including that we should not commit murder. So, once again, we must revise the golden rule to state something like the following: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, provided that (1) all parties involved share the same desires and (2) the thing being done is morally licit and not contrary to any of God’s commands.”

This tendency to interpret words in isolation, apart from their broader context and the obvious intention of their authors, burgeoned in the twentieth century, reaching its zenith in the school of deconstructionism, where, for instance, it became anathema for a reader to interpret a novel or a poem by discerning the author’s intent (say, in light of comments the author may have made in an interview). Meaning, the deconstructionists argued, is not something that objectively resides in a text, imparted there by its author and patiently awaiting our discovery of it. Rather, meaning is indeterminate until it has been socially constructed by an audience. What the deconstructionists did in the realm of literary criticism was essentially to take the old idealist dictum “There is no ‘there’ out there” and turn it inward: “There is no ‘there’ in there.” The only there in a text, they said, is the there we construct as readers.

Undoubtedly, a grain of truth resides in this theory when applied to works of fiction, for authors themselves are not always aware of the messages they intend to convey through the words and actions of their characters. However, when authorial intent is completely divorced from the interpretive process, the reader is given unwarranted latitude to refashion the text according to his or her ideology. Hence, we see Marxist critics who find class warfare lurking beneath every narrative they read, feminist critics who find misogyny as the motive for every plot, and Freudian critics who see the repression of sexual energy as the driving force behind so much of what characters say and do. (It was Shakespeare’s Oedipal guilt, Freud told us, that governed Prince Hamlet’s bizarre behavior.)

Fortunately, the damage inflicted is negligible when we misinterpret a novel or a play. There is a domain, however, where the stakes are high and the damage inflicted is irreparable: Constitutional analysis.

During the twentieth century, it became vogue to interpret the Constitution the way that some readers interpret a poem: in virtual isolation of its broader historical context. Judicial pragmatists began using deconstructionist-like techniques when interpreting the Constitution, telling us that it is a living, breathing document that must be continually reinterpreted in light of evolving standards of justice and morality. The quintessential example of such thinking is the right to privacy that the Supreme Court discovered in the Fourteenth Amendment in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and later used as a basis for its ruling in Roe v. Wade. A great thinker once said, “Our peculiar security is in possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.” That thinker was Thomas Jefferson who wrote these words in a letter to Wilson Carey Nicholas in 1803. Unfortunately our judiciary has done exactly what he warned against: it has made a blank check of our Constitution—a piece of legal tender that can be made out to and endorsed by the latest ideological fads.

This is not to suggest that we can always discern with certainty what the founding fathers had in mind with regard to every word and phrase in the Constitution. For one thing, the fathers themselves were far from unanimous in their political views. Furthermore, misunderstandings occur often enough between people having face-to-face conversations. How much more should we expect interpretive difficulties when we try to ascertain the intentions of someone removed so far in time and space? But it is one thing to plead ignorance and do the best we can to divine how a particular word or clause would have been understood at the time (e.g., by examining the historical context). It is another thing altogether, however, to summarily dismiss the framers’ intentions as irrelevant.

When interpreting any text, we must approach it, as best we can, from the perspective of those to whom it was initially written. If we want to comprehend the teachings of Plato, we must learn about ancient Athens—its culture, its philosophies, its language. If we want to understand the works of Chaucer, we must know something about fourteenth-century England. And if we wish to properly interpret the Bill of Rights, we must understand Colonial America—its laws, its language, its culture, and its controversies. Because language is dynamic, words invariably change meaning over time. It would be futile to try to understand the Canterbury Tales without first procuring a Middle English dictionary, or at least a thoroughly annotated edition. The word “wood,” for example, meant “insane” in Middle English, a meaning far removed from the semantics the word has today. Does this suggest that Chaucer’s Tales no longer mean what they used to mean? Have the stories evolved in meaning over the centuries, requiring us to visit them afresh in light of contemporary English usage and social sensibilities? Of course not. Yet this is exactly the way some would have us interpret the Constitution.

A salient example of this can be seen in the controversy over capital punishment and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. For the record, let me say that I am in no way advocating the death penalty. With Pope John Paul II, I believe that it should rarely if ever be applied. Nevertheless, I do take issue with those who argue that capital punishment in any form (even lethal injection) constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and that it is therefore unconstitutional. Consider the words of former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, an outspoken proponent of this view:

[T]he State, even as it punishes, must treat its citizens in a manner consistent with their intrinsic worth as human beings…. The calculated killing of a human being by the State involves, by its very nature, an absolute denial of the executed person’s humanity…. For me, then, the fatal constitutional infirmity of capital punishment is that it treats members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded. It is, indeed “cruel and unusual. (William J. Brennan, Jr., “Construing the Constitution” [Transcript], UC Davis Law Review [1] 1985, p. 13.)

To the late Justice Brennan, the death penalty is cruel and unusual because it denies the executed person’s humanity, treating him or her as a nonhuman. But how do we go about determining what the Constitution means by the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment”? The hermeneutic of Justice Brennan and likeminded exegetes is to interpret the terms according to our contemporary society’s standards of morality. Such reasoning, however, is problematic on more that one count. First of all, it simply is not true that Americans on the whole find the death penalty barbaric. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 63% of Americans support capital punishment for convicted murderers. For the sake of argument, though, let us assume different numbers. Suppose 99% of Americans opposed the death penalty and considered it to be barbaric. Could we then conclude that the practice is unconstitutional according to the Eighth Amendment? No. We do not interpret the words “cruel” and “unusual” as Americans in the twenty-first century might understand them, but by the way they would have been understood by Americans in 1789. While it is true that abolitionists existed in Colonial America, they were a very small minority, as evidenced by the fact that most colonies had death statutes for a wide range of offences, including piracy, burglary, counterfeiting, and horse theft. And while even a few of the founding fathers had scruples about punishment by death (Benjamin Rush for one), most of the fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, viewed it as just and fitting for those convicted of murder or treason.

It is therefore difficult to argue with a straight face that Americans on the whole would have interpreted the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” to encompass the death penalty per se. If the terms “cruel” and “unusual” were to have any meaning at all, we must assume that there were indeed methods of execution that crossed the line and were considered unacceptable (perhaps the electric chair would have been such a method had it existed then). But lethal injection? No way.

Again, I have no interest in defending the death penalty. My only intention (if that matters!) is to defend the Constitution. Judicial revision is a slippery slope. Not long ago the high court discovered a new meaning in the phrase “life, liberty, or property” that had devastating consequences for unborn children. What, then, is to prevent tomorrow’s court from reinterpreting the phrase “free exercise of religion” based on the evolving social standards of the moral elite?

Meaning in human discourse is a function of intention. When we divorce the communicative act from the intentions that gave rise to the act, we lose all hope of being able to comprehend the message embedded in that communication. Just as we must go beyond Christ’s words to his intended meaning if we are to understand the golden rule, so too must we look beyond the thin layer of ink on the Constitution to the meaning the framers had in mind when they bequeathed to us this magnum achievement.

Frank W. Hermann


Frank W. Hermann is an associate professor of English at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he teaches writing and rhetoric.

  • Piusfan

    Do we really want to go down this road? Regardless of questionable interpretive jurisprudence, the Constitution by its very nature is positioned against Catholic truth and the Catholic vision for Christ’s redemption and Christ’s reign.

    This isn’t even addressing the fact that the American people never chose a revolution, nor did they chose to scrap the Articles of Confederation, nor did their state governments get to weigh in on a new proposed constitution with the elegant end-run of ratifying conventions.

  • Any government that does not explicitly worship Christ worships the devil. For the American founders it was all well and good for the government under the Constitution to facilitate “commerce” and the “Arts and Sciences” and yet it could not acknowledge Jesus Christ as ruler?

    Also the level of Constitution worship by “conservative Catholics” borders on idolatry.

    • Piusfan


    • WSquared

      It’s one thing to appreciate the Constitution and to admire and respect it, which also means respecting its strengths and weaknesses, and its limits as well as what it enables.

      But one needn’t worship it.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    It is worth recalling the words of Thomas Jefferson (in a letter to James Madison dated September 6 1789)

    “No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation: they may manage it, then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters, too, of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government.

    The constitution and the laws of their predecessors are extinguished then, in their natural course, with those whose will gave them being. This could preserve that being, till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of thirty-four years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.

    It may be said, that the succeeding generation exercising, in fact, the power of repeal, this leaves them as free as if the constitution or law had been expressly limited to thirty-four years only. In the first place, this objection admits the right, in proposing an equivalent. But the power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be, indeed, if every form of government were so perfectly contrived, that the will of the majority could always be obtained, fairly and without impediment. But this is true of no form: The people cannot assemble themselves; their representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils, bribery corrupts them, personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents; and other impediments arise, so as to prove to every practical man, that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.”

    • Piusfan

      I suppose this can be where the tree of liberty needing to be refreshed with rivers of blood can come in.

      • Adam__Baum

        What’s really annoying about you is that while you write screed after screed like this, you ignore the obvious-people have been killing each other since Cain and Abel.

        I suppose you’d rather die as the chattel of some monarch, whose luxuries and reign were extracted from your toil and servitude.

        The only tree that needs to be refreshed with “rivers of blood” is the tree of totalitarianism, which makes mere men into gods and states into churches.

        • Piusfan

          Sounds like you may need to study Jefferson much more closely than you have. Blood being needed to refresh the tree of liberty is something that he actually wrote, not something I made up. The comprehensive track record of his writings and conduct make for some grim reading.

          I’m well aware people have been and will continue to kill each other since creation.

          • Adam__Baum

            You still haven’t provided an alternative or disputed the fact that autocracy has more blood on it’s hands and always will.

            • Michael Paterson-Seymour

              Many of those who had lived through the Revolution and came to support Napoléon thought that the problem is to enlighten the ruler, not to restrain him; and one man is more easily enlightened than many. The Abbé Sieyès, one of the most radical of democrats in 1789, came to realise that men who sought only the general good must wound every distinct and separate interest of class. They needed the means of preventing the evils that must follow if things were left to the working of opinion and the feeling of masses.

              The may have been right. A case can be made that the Civil Code contributed more to the general good than any constitution, which is why it has outlasted eight of them.

              • Adam__Baum

                “thought that the problem is to enlighten the ruler, not to restrain him”

                How would they propose to enlighten Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Castro any other number of lesser tyrants?

                • Michael Paterson-Seymour

                  Men of that generation would naturally have looked back on men like Peter the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia and the other “benevolent despots” of the 18th century, not to mention Louis XIV in the 17th. The Revolution had been a revolt against noble and clerical privilege, much more than a revolt against absolutism and Louis had broken the political power of the nobility after the Frondes

                  • Adam__Baum

                    And so my late Grandmother’s caution about “being careful you don’t jump from the frying pan to the fire”.

            • Piusfan

              I think I’ve made my point about Jefferson, and you should study more carefully and accurately the USA founding. This wasn’t exactly some altruistic, noble enterprise to free colonists and humanity from the shackles of slavery.

              You seem to be smearing Holy Catholicism by lumping it in with ‘autocracy’.

              ‘Still haven’t provided…’ I wasn’t aware I was being asked for one.

              The true alternative is why we are supposedly here with our interests: the Reign of Christ, which can assume a number of forms, not just monarchial.

              When it comes to body counts, I think you’ve got much more ‘splainin to do than I do. If you are saying you are a devotee of the British Enlightenment and that which stems from it, including the American founding, then that’s simply one group of modern liberals among many. Including Jacobins, Bolsheviks and German National Socialists. Modern liberalism has put just about everyone else to shame with their body counts over the last couple of centuries.

              From the Gulag to Auschwitz to Nagasaki: that’s quite a track record in a relatively short period of time. And plenty of good, pious, innocent Catholics being decimated in the process.

              • Adam__Baum

                I have nothing to explain. I didn’t say I was a “fan” of anything, but don’t believe in autocracy. There is no “reign of Christ” until He returns.
                You are the one with ‘splaining to do. You never answered the question.

                The suggestion that any form of SOCIALISM (national or otherwise) had anything to do with limited government is so absurd as to make me question the sanity of the individual who posited it-you. It is the sort of lie that has a sulphurous pedigree.

                I get it, you are a utopian crank. You imagine somehow earthly government can be conformed to Christ and stay that way-well it won’t- but then again, you’re perfectly comfortable with monarchy-so how did Henry Tudor work out for you? He was raised a Catholic, received the title of Fidei Defensor, he launched a centuries long pogrom and there was no recourse-and there was no “enlightment” behind his pride and fickle lust.
                Yet five centuries later, the final chapter has yet to be written, because we haven’t yet seen Englandistan yet, but present trends unabated, we will.

                After Catholics have to be realists. Utopians like you are not realists, they wish away original sin, they impute virtues to temporal rulers that simply don’t exist in any human and grant them powers that are beyond any person’s ability to retain without corruption.

      • Slainte

        The goddess Libertas demands her sacrifice….the blood of innocents. In her name, wars are promulgated and lives destroyed.

        • Adam__Baum

          And the goddesses of king and motherland and fatherland. and unity and a myriad of other ideals”but especially egalatarius, which is at war with human individuality and therefore, human dignity.

    • Adam__Baum

      “that the will of the majority could always be obtained,”

      There’s nothing special about “majority rule”. It’s subject to fraud and whim, and needs to be checked against transient and trivial matters and the rhetoric of demogogues. It’s further tarnished when it becomes the mechanism by which some live off of others and exercise powers of appointment over a treasury they don’t, and never have contributed to.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        I suppose Benjamin Franklin was the most vigorous contemporary exponent of majoritarian rule: “”The judgment of a whole people, especially of a free people, is looked upon to be infallible. And this is universally true, while they remain in their proper sphere, unbiassed by faction, undeluded by the tricks of designing men. A body of people thus circumstanced cannot be supposed to judge amiss on any essential points; for if they decide in favour of themselves, which is extremely natural, their decision is just, inasmuch as whatever contributes to their benefit is a general benefit, and advances the real public good.”

        • Adam__Baum

          It gets even more fallible when some pay and others benefit from the public treasury.

  • tom

    This House of Cards cannot stand…nor should it. The simple answer is to blame Obama, but we have to blame women (58%), Jews, Hispanics and Muslims (75%) and Blacks (90%) for bringing this house divided down on all of us. You done done us in!!

    Bye, bye.

    • thebigdog

      You are right, political correctness breeds stupidity — and let’s hope the “Bye, bye” thing was sincere.

    • Adam__Baum

      Hate to tell you but we Catholics didn’t help the vote tally.

      Of course the present situation began in 1887 with the ICC (the pilot project), but really took off in 1913 with the passage of the income tax (provided virtually unlimited lucre) and the popularly elected Senate, which eradicated states as subdivisions.

  • John son of John

    truth always remains Truth because of the Truth.


    God bless

  • John O’Neill

    It is about time that we Catholics stop this ridiculous worship of the American constitution and the so called founding fathers; these men were anti Catholic to the core and to rely on them in order to provide security to our Faith is ludicrous. The Masonic orders who were the true founder of the American World State have nothing in common with the Fathers of our Church and the sooner we realize that and stop wrapping ourselves up in the American flag and chanting USA, USA, the better we will be. Our Faith is founded in the belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that he founded our Church.

    • WSquared

      Yes. I believe worship of the U.S. Constitution is called…


      • Adam__Baum

        Who “worships” the Constitution? Certainly the drafters were sinners, but they may have been less ant-Catholic than Nancy Pelosi or Kathleen Sebelius or any number of nomimally Catholic contemporary politicians whose enmity of the Church is contained in their worship of state idolatry.
        Albert Einstein was secular Jew and a socialist who left his wife and lived with his cousin. It seems however, that he was right about light-speed invariance.

        It’s to bad we abandoned limits on the central government, it has given us many vices and no virtues.

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  • Bedarz Iliaci

    ” What, then, is to prevent tomorrow’s court from reinterpreting the
    phrase “free exercise of religion” based on the evolving social
    standards of the moral elite?”

    Nothing. The content to the phrase “free exercise of religion” is provided by one’s understanding of what “religion” is and what “free exercise” could mean.

    Now the meaning of “religion” itself depends upon one’s convictions about supernatural realm. If you don’t have any conviction in this matter, you are unlikely to give much content to the word “religion” and the phrase “free exercise of religion”.

    We may coast along for a while, since the courts usually work via precedents, but inevitably the changed understanding of the elite would make itself felt.

    There is nothing wrong in this procedure itself; it is inevitable The words remain the same but the meaning to the words themselves changes. The originalism is untenable. No person that lacks sympathy with antebellum America can interpret the Constitution in the original spirit in its entirety.

  • Facile1

    Interpreting Scripture & the U.S. Constitution?

    Any “constitution” is a worthless piece of paper to a man with a gun.

    “Scripture” carries a cost of discipleship.

    So, which is worth killing for? Which is worth dying for?

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