Literal Truth: Why Miers’ Heart is a Qualification
When President Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, he said that he knew her heart. That recommendation is the only real qualification that has been put forward for Miers: She has no judicial experience, no academic experience in constitutional law, and no public writings worth mentioning. Attorney/client privilege prevents her from talking about her only relevant job experience (as White House counsel), so President Bush’s testimony about her heart is the whole story.
I don’t want to get into the back-and-forth speculation about how she would vote on Roe v. Wade or any other issue the Court is likely to decide in the next few decades. I just want to unwrap the idea that her “heart” is a qualification. Why would that notion occur to anyone? You would not, after all, choose a brain surgeon, an airline pilot, or a clean-up hitter solely on the basis of “heart”. Why a Supreme Court justice? Why would you think that training and experience are not necessary?
There’s an answer to this question, but the professional pundits don’t seem to know it: In the worldview of fundamentalist religion, texts interpret themselves. Expertise just gets in the way.
You can see this most clearly with regard to the Bible. Conservative Christians have been fighting a war against academic Biblical scholarship since Spinoza published his Theological/Political Treatise in 1670. (In America, the struggle goes back to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason.) In order to understand the Bible, a modern fundamentalist does not need to know ancient languages, ancient history, or any method of textual criticism. All that stuff just clouds the issue, because (even in the King James translation) the Bible just says what it says. You don’t need to interpret it, you should just read it literally.
Now, it only takes a few seconds of thought to see that this view is nonsense. For example, the author of The Gospel According to John is clearly making some kind of metaphor when he writes: “In the beginning was the Word.” And interpreted literally, the parables of Jesus are not very interesting. (Who really cares what happens when a sower goes out to sow his seed anyway?)
But this is exactly the kind of academic reasoning that puts a mote in the eye of faith. To grasp the Bible’s true meaning, a fundamentalist doesn’t need to get a degree in Biblical Studies, she just needs to read the text and let it speak directly to her heart. If she has a good heart – one that is not muddled by vices like intellectual pride – she’ll see the truth.
This is a familiar argument to fundamentalists, and it easily makes the transition from religion to law. The sin of the so-called “liberal activist judges” is that they don’t read the Constitution literally. Like the Bible, the Constitution interprets itself. It says what it says. The “right to bear arms” means exactly that – and don’t confuse matters by inventing some artificial distinction between flintlock rifles and M-16s, or wondering what that phrase about “a well-regulated militia” is doing there. And if the phrase “right to privacy” isn’t in the Constitution, end of story. You can’t read it if it isn’t there. Using the Ninth Amendment to argue in favor of “implied rights” (like the right to breathe air, for example – another omission of the Founders), is just liberal sophistry.
In short, a good fundamentalist judge doesn’t need any education beyond the simple ability to read. Training in legal interpretation is actually a bad thing, because it gives you intellectual pride. It tempts you to think you know better than the Founders, and to read things into the text that aren’t really there. So don’t give us some Harvard-educated genius with a long list of publications in academic journals.
Just give us a woman with a good heart.
19 October 2005
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