Render unto the constitution that which is the constitution’s

Trigger warning: abortion, racism, xenophobia

To anyone familiar with the video game Bioshock Infinite, the strange nexus between American iconography and local versions of Christianity is familiar territory. The game leads the player through a cultish, pseudo-separatist society within a 1912 steampunk United States, which allows it the game to take familiar archetypes of American art and culture and particularly religion, remix them in new ways, and reintroduce American viewers to those motifs in a new light. One of the themes most clearly highlighted is the quasi-godlike status of the “founding fathers,” particularly George Washington, whose images live on as icons the powerful can use to validate their ideas.

To some players, the idea seemed a bit odd or even laughable. And then a Tea Party group apparently found an uncredited screenshot from the game and used it in precisely that same way depicted in the game.

tea party bioshock posterThe image in question.

That could maybe be laughed off as a funny happenstance – actual nationalistic imagery and fictional nationalistic imagery are surprisingly easy for people to confuse. Certain responses to today’s hearing on Planned Parenthood, however, suggest that that deeper confusion, between prophets and framers or sin and illegality, is perhaps something real that Bioshock Infinite reflected rather than invented.

Unfortunately the original tweet has been deleted, but you can see some of the larger context here, as one anti-abortion activists asked supporters of Planned Parenthood to show him where the constitution grants the right to an abortion:

Since then the same person tried an almost identical argument with a slightly modified point:

Naturally, the constitution in and of itself doesn’t do either of those things. The constitution barely lays out much in the way of day-to-day laws, regulating what is personal autonomy and what is interpersonal responsibility on virtually any issue. The vast majority of those issues are regulated by a thick bedrock of common law built upon by centuries of jurisprudence and legislation – processes carried out by authorities given that power under the constitution, but the results of which are only loosely described by the constitution itself.

Asking for “constitutional proof” of much of anything leads to very broad interpretations of seemingly innocuous phrases. Its preamble’s call to “create a more perfect union” has been used to argue against a right to secede. Almost every legal right or limitation you encounter in your daily life in the US is informed by something beyond the constitution itself.

But that is a view of the constitution rooted in not only reading it as a constitution rather than codex, but also as a legal document rather than quasi-religious one. Particularly in the US, there are many versions of Christianity where the Bible is understood as effectively containing all moral lessons and to some even all knowledge in existence. While arguably rooted in a historical effort to hone Christians’ focus back onto the original stories within the Bible, that popular religious belief inflates all arguments into a struggle to find specifically biblical justification. Now, doesn’t that sound familiar?

Of course, few people have read the constitution fully and fewer have read the Bible cover to cover (and even fewer still with all the apocrypha and related “optional” parts). These convictions that the right to an abortion or marriage equality or any number of other policies are in part rooted in a conviction that these texts say what you want them to say. There’s even a small dollop of fear in the zealousness, that perhaps they are getting it wrong and these truth-telling texts don’t say exactly what they would like.

I suspect that that might be part of what motivates them to not bother with reading them. It’s Schrödinger’s faith – if you don’t read the wording you can imagine it backs up exactly what you want it to. That’s how there can be so many glossing over the constitution’s first section’s call for the country’s people to “establish justice” and “promote the general welfare,” as much as the Bible’s demand for justice to “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” and for “you who is without sin” to be the first to condemn another.

Someone check the skies – maybe Bioshock Infinite was right about the floating city too.

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One thought on “Render unto the constitution that which is the constitution’s

  1. There are so many good things here but “Schrödinger’s faith” or rather perhaps his cat’s faith, is a particularly funny and sadly true concept of those who choose to speak of that which they have not actually read.

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