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Rick Santorum's "Constitutional Illiteracy?"

May 11th, 2011 | 3 min read

By Andrew Walker

Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post’s conservative beat reporter, has an all-out assault on Rick Santorum’s constitutional views—going so far as to call him “constitutionally illiterate” and “un-conservative" when Santorum suggested that a so-called “truce” on social issues is a gross misunderstanding of American political life. While Rubin’s insult strikes me as an extreme and unnecessary barb on Santorum, Rubin’s own constitutional milieu is just as equally troubled.

She states,

“You can look to the Declaration or the Federalist papers or the Constitution and make a principled argument that America is about individual liberty or limited government (which secures the former). But it’s not about moral issues or any issue.” (Emphasis mine).

Our country was founded on the notion that limited government (bound by the rule of law and hemmed in by the separation of powers) is essential to maintain a free, diverse and prosperous people. It is precisely because we disagree on so many issues that we support a political system that tempers majority control with individual rights. It’s not about one side winning on certain issues or even demanding that certain issues be at the forefront of our agenda.

Rubin goes on to support her claim using Federalist No. 10 from the Federalist Papers and a lengthy quote from political philosopher Peter Berkowitz.

Those well acquainted with Rubin's blogging will see her libertarian element rise to prominence quite frequently, no less demonstrated here.

I might reply that, no matter what a nation's dedications are to its founding documents, a nation is and becomes by default more than its founding documents. One need not, however, adopt a liberal rendering of the Constitution (heaven forbid, I'm an originalist) to achieve my claim. To suggest that the Constitution sets the limits on what is or is not considered valuable to individual citizens is absurd.

Not only does Rubin fail to see the larger scope of Santorum's claim, her own reluctance to see the importance of social and religious issues escapes other founding fathers' claims on the intent of the Constitution. John Adams—no right-wing Christian by his own designation—spoke these words on how the Constitution would function in a land comprised of competing passions.

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.

So in Rubin's view, the Constitution is exclusively about limited government and assuring maximal personal liberty; yet for Adams, the same Constitution rebuffs the exact passions that Rubin celebrates as the ultimate expression of Constitutional fidelity. Weird.

Rubin's absolutist jab displays none other than a Beltway reluctance to adopt the social values of Santorum's "Rust Belt" Pennsylvania or the so-called "fly-over states"—those geographically disenfranchised few who insist that moral values actually matter to our daily lives.

I'd point readers to George Nash's The History of the Conservative Intellectual Movement for a fuller treatment on why Constitutional allegiance not only welcomes issues of moral relevance, but demands it.


Andrew Walker

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.