I have tried without much success to take an interest in the parboiled debate over Judge Russell Fagg’s so-called shadow campaign for the U.S. Senate. But my dutiful slog through Fagg’s defense of his actions in the Oct. 8 Billings Gazette screeched to a halt when I encountered this sentence: “Our constitution, divinely inspired, gives everyone the right to express their opinions.”
Let’s set aside the question of whether a Constitution that denied full rights to more than half the population, including women and slaves, truly allowed everyone to express opinions. What matters is whether someone who argues for the divine inspiration of the Constitution is fit to hold public office.
The case that the Constitution was divinely inspired is popular in certain corners of reality, especially in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and among fans of David Barton, the author and evangelical who argues that the founding fathers had a Christian nation in mind.
They point to a selective bag of evidence, including George Washington’s statement in a letter to Lafayettethat it was “little short of a miracle” that delegates with such varied interests were able to form a government with so few obvious defects. I believe the strict definition of “little short of a miracle” is “not a miracle.”
They also point to Ben Franklin’s suggestion, during a contentious session of the constitutional convention, that the delegates begin their business each day with a prayer. According to James Madison’s notes, the motion died without a vote.
The Federalist Papers detected “the finger of God” in the passage of the Constitution, but the founders were under no illusions about who wrote the document. That “finger of God” passage is followed by this sentence: “I will not presume to say that a more perfect system might not have been fabricated; but who expects perfection at once?”
It is unrecorded that anyone who believes the Bible was divinely inspired has ever expressed this sentiment: “A more perfect book might have been written, but who expects perfection at once?”
Other founders fully grasped that the Constitution was the work of frail humans. Washington’s letter to Lafayette also contained this sentence: “We are not to expect perfection in this world: but mankind, in modern times, have apparently made some progress in the science of Government.” He pointed out that the Constitution contained provisions that allowed its defects to be mended.
Gouverneur Morris said at the convention, “Reason tells us we are but men, and we are not to expect any particular interference from heaven in our favor.”
Alexander Hamilton put it this way at the convention: “It is a miracle that we [are] now here exercising our tranquil and free deliberations on the subject. It would be madness to trust to future miracles.”
Hamilton, asked later why the Constitution failed to mention God, gave this (possibly apocryphal) reply: “We forgot.”
The Constitution remains a remarkably farsighted and innovative document, brilliant by human standards but pretty shabby for God’s work. The founders were well aware of some of the defects, such as the failure to settle the slavery question, a shortcoming that led within a century to what remains the nation’s bloodiest war.
God would never have blundered so egregiously. That children’s song could never have said, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight, except that some are only three-fifths as precious as the others.” It doesn’t rhyme. It doesn’t scan. It doesn’t make sense.
But the founders’ views on divine inspiration hardly matter today, right? No, not unless the Constitution is treated as divine writ, as some Americans seem inclined to do.
For example, my column last week calling for an honest discussion of gun control drew multiple comments from Robert Eddleman, including the argument that what other countries do about gun control doesn’t matter because they don’t have a Second Amendment.
Yes, but the Second Amendment wasn’t engraved on stone tablets. It wasn’t even part of the original Constitution; it was a response to the Constitution’s perceived defects. It was as if God, after inspiring the document, had to pencil in a few corrections. Believing that the founders, given what guns can now do, would have written that amendment exactly the same way today is an act of faith, not of jurisprudence.
As late as 2014, seven states still had language in their constitutions prohibiting those who do not believe in God from holding public office. The strain for theocracy runs strong in American governance.
So where does Russell Fagg, now officially a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, fit in? Does he sort of vaguely believe that God’s invisible hand somehow encouraged 18th century Americans to cobble together a flawed but estimable governing document? Or does he, as his Gazette column seemed to imply, believe the Constitution is the infallible word of God?
Unfortunately, Fagg has yet to reply to my message to his campaign. He still owes voters an explanation. “The law,” as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” reminds us, “is a human institution.” We need to know whether Fagg intends for it to stay that way.
David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and college professor who writes a weekly column for Last Best News.