The Impotent Cult of Constitution-Worship

This morning I encountered the following quotation from Antonin Scalia, who observed:

“The bill of rights of the former evil empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was much better than ours. I mean it literally. It was much better. We guarantee freedom of speech and of the press, big deal! They guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, of street demonstrations, and anyone who is caught trying to suppress criticism of the government will be called to account.”

The point that the late Justice—whose dissents in King v Burwell and Obergefell v Hodges I consider to be the epitaph for our republic—is illuminating is that written constitutions are just words on paper if they lack the energizing force of tradition and culture to gird them up. In this light, it becomes rather clear that when it was ratified our Constitution was merely the capstone to American liberty, and not the foundation for it.

Without the long tradition of distinctly English law and English liberty in the King’s American colonies, little in the Constitution of the united States of America makes sense, or could reasonably have been enforced. In the colonies, that old English culture was transformed into the American conception of liberty, which lived on its own for decades before the Constitution codified its relationship with the new government.

The American Constitution did not come first and then allow for American liberty to exist. The order of causation was precisely backward. English culture in America was the foundation of liberty, and allowed the Constitution to exist. The Constitution was the “foundation” of precisely nothing.

So naturally when the Anglo-American liberty culture and civic traditions began to erode, this led to the decline and collapse of constitutional strictures on government, which became itself a further corroding influence on the remaining traditions of civic life undergirding the system. When that tradition of liberty died, no fealty to words on paper could revive it.

Contra the Church of Bill Buckley, those words on paper do not represent a new universal (and conveniently godless) gospel that sprang fully-formed from quill pens in Philadelphia. On its own, the Constitution is powerless without the animating force which gave it authority. It cannot be spread to alien lands and produce recognizably Anglo-American liberty by nothing more than the working of the holy spirits of The Founders (the Church Fathers of Buckleyism). To do so would require imperial projections of force of the sort that no modern society can stomach.

This is not to say that the blessings of liberty are forever forbidden to those unfortunate to be born beyond our shores. Such an assertion is beyond absurd, as many people and peoples throughout history have adopted new traditions and left their old ones behind. But this is by no means automatic or universal. It is the result of conscious choices of both the immigrant and the host society.

First, the immigrant and the host must mutually acknowledge their cultures are separate and distinct (otherwise there would be no immigration), and the culture of the host which the immigrant seeks to adopt is more desirable (otherwise he not immigrate to this particular host society). Universalist multiculturalism must be rejected.

Next, the host society, if it is not to be overrun, must not greet new immigrants with profuse apologies for its success (the very reason immigrants would want to adopt their traditions) and bemoan its very existence. The various guilt/privilege complexes that today serve as the effective doctrine of Original Sin must be rejected.

And additionally, the immigrant must leave their old tradition behind. As a corollary the host society must not permit wholesale transplantation of alien cultures to its own lands, which will exert their own gravitational pull and prevent large-scale peaceful assimilation. Geographic translocation as a means of cultural transformation, or Magic Dirt theory, must be rejected.

Little in mainline conservatism supports these propositions. Many conservatives see the Constitution as new age gospel and the pledge of allegiance as a substitute Nicene Creed, a vow that can be adopted by anyone anywhere on the planet and his fellows also which makes them instantaneously Americans as authentic as the Englishmen who first rebelled against the king.

Whether this attitude is driven by attempts not to seem anti-immigrant or genuine pseudo-religious devotion to a secular document matters little. The effect is to make mainline conservatism unsuited to make the necessary defense of our common heritage as I roughly outlined above.

As long as the mainline right remains a universalist cult of constitution-worship, it can expect only certain defeat. Building ever-more ornate flourishes on the roof is a vain defense against attacks on the building’s foundation.

The Constitution was a sturdy roof upon the house of liberty which kept out the rain and wind of transient change and capricious governors. But the house was built on a foundation of English culture and Christian religion. Lose that, and you lose everything.

One Response to “The Impotent Cult of Constitution-Worship”

  1. Daniel Hanan writes beautifully on the context of our Constitution in “Inventing Liberty”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: