March 16, 2014

The Final Authority in Constitutionalism and Catholicism

By In Articles, Politics

The libertarian has learned that one should be a bit suspicious about the fact that one branch of the Federal Government, the Supreme Court, has the ability, or claims it does, to pontificate the constitutionality of certain laws.  While the Tenth Amendment notes that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” the Supreme Court has ignored this and has actively worked against it since, well, the very beginning.  To say that the government itself can decide whether or not the government has the legal authority to do something is a dangerous notion.  The libertarian might see the Constitution as a great standard compared to the authoritarianism of today, but, if he is honest with himself, notes that the Constitution itself established the Federal Government, which, as all governments are prone to do, began its growth pattern immediately.  Lysander Spooner was particularly observant when he wrote:

“But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain -that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or it has been powerless to prevent it.  In either case it is unfit to exist.”

Many perhaps would squabble over the last sentence.  But it should be at least seen as a reasonable conclusion given the rest of the quote.  Has the Constitution authorized such a large government?  The honest man would say no.  But then could the honest man deny that the document has been powerless to stop the most powerful government in the history of the world?  Constitutionalism is good if it is a stepping stone.  But is it not idolatry to worship it as perfection?  Did not the Articles of Confederation allow for even more decentralization that the Constitution?  And is it not conceivable to imagine a document which is better than the Articles?  Perhaps the non-existence of any established Federal Government would have been better for individual liberty after all.

Our point however is that when you have an institution with the monopoly role of interpreting its own power, corruption takes over and expansionism ensues.  Human nature has proven that this tendency is not strictly limited to the State qua State.  What about the Roman Catholic Church?  Here is an institution that claims it has the monopoly role on interpreting the Scripture and determining official doctrine.  While the Constitution is not perfect, it would be better if it determined the action of the Federal Government rather than the Federal Government determining the meaning of the document.  In the same way, a major contention between Protestantism and Catholicism is that the latter claims the ultimate authority to tell the world what the Bible means.  Roman Catholics are under the belief that the [Romish] Church produced the Bible, authenticate it, and have the final word on its meaning.  But this, like the Supreme Court’s claim that it alone can interpret the Constitution, seems largely suspicious.  “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Amusingly, this brilliant statement was written by Catholic Lord Acton.

If Constitutionalism must exist, it should operate on the Protestant model.  The Catholic model leads to big government in the same way that it has led to such an authoritative and politically driven Roman State Church.  The Protestant view of Scripture is the opposite of the Catholic view.  For the Protestant, the Scripture, the Word of God, preceded the Church and called it into existence.  Thus, the Scripture itself provides the definition and function of the Church, not vice versa.  Scripture is final and Scripture is the standard by which churches should be compared.  The American problem with the Constitution is that it has ventured away from this principle.  The Constitution established and called the Federal Government into existence and thus the Federal Government should be compared to the document as a standard.  Not the reverse.

The skeptical reader might interject by assuming that I have blasphemously set the Constitution on the same plane as the Bible.  But this is hardly a legitimate complaint.  The Constitution does not determine truth nor is it infallible.  And as stated above, in an ideal world, the Constitution would not exist.  Government should be far more local and the State as a monopoly on coercion would not exist.  But our present argument is about the use of the Constitution given that it exists and is therefore a factor in our political environment.  It should be used as the interpretive standard and should not be so manipulated, abused, and taken advantage of, as has been done for over two hundred years.  If the Constitution has been misinterpreted by earthly Powers to give the government more power as time goes by, so it is true with the Roman manipulation of the Scripture.  The Supreme Court should be stripped away of its authority by the document in the same way that the Catholic Church should be stripped by the Word of God.  But unfortunately in both instances, both Rome and Washington are so corrupt and sinful that to ask them to limit themselves now that they have such mighty power is a pipe dream.  However, the good Lord reigns supreme and vengeance belongs to him.  Neither Rome nor DC are kingdoms that will last forever.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • Thanks for the much-needed article. As for the Constitution, many people praise for its flexibility but fail to recognize that the very flexibility of the Constitution was what made it problematic from a libertarian standpoint. There were phrases such as the Commerce Clause which were interpreted by statists as a blank check on the feds’ regulation of interstate commerce. And don’t forget the father of the implied powers doctrine, James Madison (fff.org/explore-freedom/article/tgif-james-madison-father-of-the-implied-powers-doctrine/). Murray Rothbard rightly noted that Madison was a weakling, a sort of confused proto-fusionist (we libertarians probably what that means).

    While I do like the Bill of Rights, an ideal system would be where the Articles of Confederation is mixed with the Bill of Rights and a very weak central government (not no state at all; I am not yet an anarchist, though I wouldn’t have any major problems with anarchism as defined by Murray Rothbard, lew Rockwell, and the individualist anarchists of the 19th century).