At the start of each Congress, the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are sworn into office. Each member swears or affirms an oath to support the Constitution, per Article 6 of said Constitution ("The Senators and Representatives before mentioned ... shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution.") Since 1789, members have taken this oath. The current oath has been in use since the 1860s and goes like this:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
Now, the Republican leaders of the latest Congress decided that they wouldn't just swear to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, but would take the additional step of reading it out loud. You may be surprised to know this isn't standard procedure for the launch of every new Congress. Or you may think it's unfair to read the Constitution out loud before Congress makes laws based on it. Unfair, you ask? Well, the thinking goes that it's partisan propaganda.
But is there a religion angle? The Washington Post thought so and put Jason Horowitz on the case. It doesn't take far to know that he agrees with the camp who thought reading the Constitution was unfair.
It's in the Style section, the dumping ground for the Washington Post's snarkiest journalism. But I highlight it only to show what a weak job it did with the religion angle. In this case, the civil religion angle:
And the Founders said: Let there be a constitution. And the Founders looked at the articles and clauses and saw that it was good.
For more than 200 years, Americans have revered the Constitution as the law of the land, but the GOP and tea party heralding of the document in recent months - and the planned recitation on the House floor Thursday - has caused some Democrats to worry that the charter is being misconstrued as the immutable word of God.
"They are reading it like a sacred text," said New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the outgoing chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, who has studied and memorized the Constitution with talmudic intensity.
Nadler called the "ritualistic reading" on the floor "total nonsense" and "propaganda" intended to claim the document for Republicans. "You read the Torah, you read the Bible, you build a worship service around it," said Nadler, who argued that the Founders were not "demigods" and that the document's need for amendments to abolish slavery and other injustices showed it was "highly imperfect."
"You are not supposed to worship your constitution. You are supposed to govern your government by it," he said.
Nadler was later in the news for taking part in the reading and accidentally skipping over Articles 4 and 5. And later in this article he concedes reading it will likely be educational. Anyway, if you want an attack piece on Republicans, this is a great article. But if you were looking for something less partisan and more interesting, this would not be the article to read. And if you're looking for an article explaining some Americans' view that the Congress should focus its legislative resources on the specific things the Constitution enumerates, you might avoid certain sections of the Post piece altogether.
The first thing I wondered when I started this was how they would handle Mormon views about the Constitution. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the church to which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) belongs -- teaches that the U.S. Constitution is divinely inspired. When I covered the D.C. rally of Reid's fellow Mormon Glenn Beck in August, literally the first words I heard out of his mouth were about just that -- the sacredness of the U.S. Constitution.
So how does the article discuss this?
Not only are the Republican Mormons not asked for their views on Nadler's words, neither are Democratic Mormons. No scholars are brought in to discuss Mormon views either. In an article mocking the idea that reading the Constitution means you worship it and view it as divinely inspired, there's no mention of that group of people who do believe it's sacred.
But even apart from that, the story is just silly. All of two members are quoted -- Nadler and Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. How's that for a thoughtful cross-section of House members? For her part, she says that the Constitution is a secular document and reading it out loud is a logical reaction to the campaign.
The article showed a glimpse of promise in the quotes from some of the less partisan sources (and one of the most civil, informative and sane people who ever works inside the Beltway):
"The Constitution is seen as both the source and the product of God's blessing on the United States," said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist and adviser to the Pew Forum's surveys on religion in politics. "Reading and invoking the Constitution is part of a public ritual that makes up the civil religion."
In his first presidential inaugural address, George Washington divined the invisible hand of providence in the nation's creation, a pervasive belief, Green said, that imbued the Constitution with a "quasi-scriptural" quality. The perceived majesty of the document has waxed and waned over time, but after a sweeping Republican Party victory in the November midterms, it is conservative and tea party members who are most vocal in extolling its restorative powers.
The trouble is that the aim of this article is to highlight Jerry Nadler's mockery of Republicans. The obnoxious beginning sort of sets the tone for the rest of the piece. If, instead, the reporter had tried to actually understand the civil religion aspects of a public reading of the country's founding document, it would have gone much better. Such an article could have even discussed whether this particular example of civil religion is necessary, beneficial, benign or "total nonsense."