Book Review

The Bible on the Table and the Flag Upon the Wall


SERVING THE WORD: Literalism in America from the Pulpit to the Bench.

By Vincent Crapanzano.

In the spring of 1943, the jukebox in Austin’s Mr. Shorty’s (on Lake Austin Boulevard across from Tom Miller Dam) played patriotic country. It assured heavy-footed dancers of a paradise to come “when this war is over and the world is free” and reminded them of the values of faith and nation – “the Bible on the table and the flag upon the wall.” No one, whether in uniform or not, cared to question sacred truth. Remembering Mr. Shorty’s long afterward, I wasn’t surprised to learn, from Vincent Crapanzano’s Serving the Word, that at least one justice of the Supreme Court had declared the U.S. Constitution “divinely inspired” or that Sanford Levinson (of the U.T. Law School) talks about the Constitution as central to “American civil religion.” So it took courage for the anthropologist Crapanzano, who’s neither a lawyer nor a believing Christian, to anthropologize among both Fundamentalist Christians and constitutional lawyers; and it’s downright foolhardy for another unbelieving illegal to review his observations. The excuse is that Serving the Word, though it won’t raise anybody’s pulse rate, does raise questions directly relevant to the presidential election of 2000, when a Reaganite born-again is one of the two main candidates.

Serving the Word is about the hermeneutics of Fundamentalist Christians and constitutional lawyers – in plain English, about their ways of reading and applying the Bible and man-made law. By “serving the word” Crapanzano means literal interpretation – literalism as he characterizes it; and he maintains that serving easily becomes subservience. Readers may be surprised by the breadth of his unfavorable characterization of literalism, whose features as he sees them include the views that certain texts are “fundamental,” that their meaning is “ultimately decidable,” and that their “one true interpretation” is separate from their possibly multiple applications. For all Crapanzano’s detachment as an anthropological outsider, he just doesn’t like literalists.

His Preface closes with a neat outline of his whole book. It isn’t bedside reading. The Introduction deals with “theories of interpretation and language.” Chapters One, Two, and Three discuss the history and theology of Fundamentalism. They tell of conversion, sanctification, “biblical counseling,” and the Fundamentalists’ understanding of “time and history.” The four remaining chapters introduce the history and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, examine the Constitution’s “foundational role” in the “textualism” of justices like Scalia, sharply criticize Borkian insistence on “original intent,” and examine “the weight” of precedent. Though the more personal Conclusion (still no barn-burner) does speak of serving as subservience, I suspect that Crapanzano would be much irritated (as he should be) if readers muddled or ignored his literal meaning.

An unbelieving illegal must shun any pretense to explicate the complexities of Protestant sectarianism. Readers so inclined (probable not many) may ponder the differences and vituperative debates among dispensationalists, Pentecostalists, reconstructionists, premillennialists, postmillenialists, amillennialists, and the like. Similarly, only a legal eye could distinguish among “legal conservatives as originalists, interpretivists, literalists, strict-constructivists, intentionalists, or textualists.” The eyes of the untutored glaze over even at the familiar distinctions among socially accepted meaning, personal meaning, intention, and understanding.

Regardless of all such technicalities, the relevance of Serving the Word to the electorate’s concerns in the year 2000 is quite clear in at least two ways. The first may be suggested by the misadventures of the born-again candidate when he tried to exploit his religious rebirth for political survival but failed to be rude enough to denounce the traditional Protestantism of his hosts at Bob Jones University. In the old days of the solid South, devout Southern Protestants for once in their lives voted Republican when the Democratic nomination of Catholic Al Smith roused fear of the Pope in the White House; but in a society now theoretically pluralistic, the concern for church doctrine has grown less fashionable than concern for big fast money. Leaving South Carolina, the born-again candidate had quickly to disavow beliefs which invited secular excommunication.

The Fundamentalists that Crapanzano writes about do take their religion seriously. They take it so seriously that they would reply to the secular excommunicators by excommunicating them right back. It’s in fact their exclusivity and not their defensible hermeneutics that’s worrisome. There’s good sense in “the literal grammatical-historical method” of interpreting Scripture in accordance with “the original language or languages of the text and its historical situation,” and Fundamentalist seminarians are quite right to insist that “before the significance of a text can be determined, its objective meaning must be uncovered, for otherwise texts can be used to justify almost anything.”

In choosing to talk hermeneutics, then, Crapanzano chose not to focus directly on the touchier subject, the Fundamentalists’ irrational faith – faith not in thoughtfully examined experience, but in an agglomeration of ancient texts from societies utterly unlike our own. Protecting themselves from cold reason by a doctrinal security blanket, they practice a religion centered on the “plain, ordinary words” of a supposedly inerrant Bible and try to live devout lives of “missionary zeal” in the belief that “only the re-born in Christ can be saved.” The rest of us are going to hell. In a world created by God in just six days some ten or twelve thousand years ago, the elect “look to the second coming of Christ as the only cure for…social and political ills,” and their security blanket is so necessary to their well-being that rational discussion of their belief in the unbelievable is for them impossible. Their crude, even brutal exclusivity is reminiscent of the unspeakable baseball-playing revivalist Billy Sunday. During the first World War, he “taught children to hiss at the German flag,” and in prayer he urged the deity, “Oh, god-damn Bill Kaiser.”

Such Christian charity would hardly enable a born-again President (provided his convictions were more than skin-deep) to conduct the foreign policy of a variegated nation. Serious voters, sweating out Crapanzano, should be prompted to face the fact that the religious have made murderous war for blood-stained centuries – and are still at it. In every such war, God is invoked on all sides. A born-again President would be a disaster whether as active, true believer or as pretender breeding cynicism. He would do least damage if he put his religion in his back pocket and tried to lead the nation to secular rationality. Otherwise he would invite such consequences as attended the born-again candidate’s visit to Bob Jones U.: “hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, envyings, and such like” (Galatians V, minus the witchcraft and drunken revellings).

The second way in which Serving the Word is particularly relevant in an election year opens up when one considers the Great Communicator’s notions about law. President Reagan had promised to narrow the Supreme Court’s recent “interpretations of individual and civil rights,” in particular by banning abortion, allowing “religion in public schools,” and enhancing the power of the states. His technique was to appoint judges whose politics would lead them to make the decisions that he wanted. On such political grounds he nominated Robert H. Bork for the Supreme Court. As Solicitor General, Bork had shown his obedience to President Nixon when he fired Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, and he was apparently willing “to overturn well-established precedent.”

Delightfully, it was this same Bork who said, under questioning by Senator Arlen Specter, “I think the American people want judges to interpret the law and not to make it” – an assertion which Reaganites never tire of repeating. It has a nice ring, but it’s pretty dreamy. Codified law has to be applied in circumstances the codifiers never dreamed of, so that (in Crapanzano’s words) “…adjudication, at least in hard cases, is both a declaration and an alteration of the ‘existing’ law. It is both law-giving and law-making. However evaluated, alteration is a given in adjudication.” That’s as much as to say that judges just can’t help making law, and (as Reagan’s appointments show) they themselves are judged by what kind of law they’re apt to make. If a born-again Reaganite should become President, “judicial restraint” would result in more Reaganite law.

I don’t think Crapanzano provides satisfactory solutions to the problems of legal interpretation that he poses. Certainly I can’t. Crapanzano does supply me, however, with a quotation that I’ll keep in the back of my mind as I get ready to vote. The quotation’s from Donald Santarelli, Associate Deputy Attorney General under Nixon: “The Constitution isn’t the real issue in this: it is how you want to run the country….” Scary.

James Sledd is professor emeritus of English at U.T.-Austin.