Sacred Texts The Myth of Historical Literalism.


In the modern United States, a substantial portion of our society has the view that this country is in a state of moral decay. The alleged causes of this decay take various forms but are often expressed as a belief that the nation has drifted away from its "sacred texts"--the Bible and the U.S. Constitution. The argument with both texts is that a literal reading provides moral guidance, while any other way of reading opens the door to the reader substituting her or his own subjective principles for what the text actually says.

For both biblical literalists and constitutional literalists, support for their world view comes from a belief that, since their very creation, these texts were read literally and a moral society was the result. Only in recent years (often the 1960s are cited as the beginning of the fall) have we begun to "interpret" them. The result, literalists would argue, is society's moral decay.

In his 1985 article "Comparative Normative Hermeneutics: Scripture, Literature, Constitution" (Southern California Law Review 58), scholar Ronald R. Caret summarizes the view this way:

The rhetoric of literalism suggests that texts offer a fundamental access to meaning, and that this access is impeded by "interpretation," which is a pejorative term in the literalist lexicon. Literalism offers several distinct accounts of how interpretation becomes an impediment to understanding the moral meaning of a text. One account takes the form of history. According to this history, the text was once read literally, but in recent times has come to be read in new "interpretive" ways. Conservative religious leaders (for example, Southern Baptists and various other evangelicals) often blame moral decay on society's increasing failure to read the Bible literally, and they attack "liberal" theologians who provide alternative explanations of what the Bible says. These attacks are often sharpest when it comes to particularly controversial issues like homosexuality but are reflected as well in debates over the role of women in the church and the use of corporal punishment. Biblical literalism argues that not only is the Bible literally correct on all moral questions but it provides historical truth as well. Jerry Falwell, a prominent biblical literalist, argues that "the Bible is the inerrant word of the living God. It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc."

Similarly, prominent conservative legal scholars--such as Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas--argue that the Constitution has always been read more or less literally and that many of the problems of modern society are caused by "liberal" judges reading principles into the Constitution that aren't contained in its text. Judicial decisions on such topics as abortion, homosexuality, school prayer, and affirmative action are all seen as drastic departures from what the Constitution literally commands. As Bork states in Slouching Towards Gomorrah. Modern Liberalism and American Decline (1997):

Judicial radical individualism weakens or destroys ... families, schools, business organizations, [and] private associations.... All of this has happened within the lifetimes of many Americans. We are worse off because of it, and none of it was commanded or contemplated by the Constitution. Because of this perceived threat, Bork has called for a constitutional amendment enabling a majority vote of Congress to override a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In reality, however, debates over how to read the Bible and the Constitution have existed since the documents' first creation. Arguments over literalism and interpretationism are nothing new and, in fact, reflect the enormous importance society places on these documents. To believe that the documents have always been read literally until recently simply ignores historical fact.


One of the distinctive features of the three major monotheistic religions is their dependence on a written text for guidance. As Ronald Garet points out:

The interpretation...

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