You are both really onto something. We have come to this strange moment in American political history where the Constitution is being talked of not as inspired by the Bible or imbued with Biblical principles but as a kind of Bible itself, a holy text to be interpreted literally and treated with absolute reverence. Any kind of skepticism or critical judgment about it—or at least, the Tea Party-approved parts—is viewed as a sin. I wonder if at future Christine O’Donnell rallies they will start selling constitutional kitsch—pocket-size Constitutions and WWJD (What Would Jefferson Do?) bracelets.
Every few years or so the Christian right flares up again, each time with a slightly different emphasis. In the ‘80s, the focus was sexual politics, then a decade later the public schools, and this time it’s what O’Donnell calls “constitutional repentance.” I can see where this one came from. Christian conservatives have always emphasized that the U.S. is a Christian nation and that secularists have tried to blot out the role of religion in the nation’s founding. “The true story of America’s faith has been obscured by those who deny the providential work of God in history,” reads a high-school textbook for homeschoolers I quote in my book, God’s Harvard. (O’Donnell gives a shout-out to the home schoolers in her Values Voter speech).
In the past, though, the link between God and American law was much more vague. Conservatives talked about the Bible as “inspiring” our founding documents, or pressed the idea that the founders must have had Jesus Christ in mind, since they were God-fearing Christians . The language I heard a lot was, “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world. It’s God’s gift to humanity.” Meaning that American and biblical principles were perfectly aligned.
Over the last few years, this movement to “correct” the false secularist version of American history has made headway, especially in Texas, home of the rewritten history textbooks. But now it’s taken a more extreme, pointed form. The Constitution is treated like a chapter somewhere between “Samuel” and “Kings.” And O’Donnell is just the latest person to ride that wave. Take her weird Old Testament digression in the Values Voter speech. It starts, “The Constitution is making a comeback.” Huh? But substitute the word “Bible” for “Constitution,” and it makes perfect sense: “The Bible is making a comeback. It’s simply unprecedented in my lifetime.” She goes on with a time-honored analogy among Christians—in times of darkness, we turn to the Bible for comfort, but again swaps the religious text for the (secular) legal one. Weird, and kind of heretical if you think about it, but also the logical endpoint toward which this kind of Christian historical revisionism has been heading. As a legal movement, its internal contradictions and inconsistency will make Justice Scalia’s originalism look like a poetry slam, and likely drive you lawyer types insane.
Now what is O’Donnell—a Catholic, not a Protestant evangelical—doing in the middle of this movement? O’Donnell came of age when young Catholics caught the evangelical fever. In the early ‘90s, she was the front line of the movement’s effort to control sexual politics. (Phyllis Schlafly, who founded Concerned Women for America, where O’Donnell worked, was also raised Roman Catholic.) O’Donnell’s gift has been to make herself the fetching spokeswoman for the Christian-right obsession of the moment. She had her own little Terri Schiavo, as you both pointed out. And she did her anti-masturbation riff on MTV (with sultry red lipstick and a toss of her fabulous hair, in true evangelical girl style) just when the movement best-seller I Kissed Dating Goodbye was instructing Christian girls everywhere to keep their hands to themselves.
Now here’s the problem, which her devoted followers may or may not ignore. Yes, she says all the right things— Narnia and Lord of the Rings are catnip to her audience. But she does not walk the walk. She can’t submit to her husband because she doesn’t have one, and despite all the coded mommy talk, she does not have little Palins to scoop up in her arms. And the Wiccan thing throws a loop into her whole self-presentation. You guys think anyone will care about any of that?