How to Explain Originalism to Your Grandchild

American progressives, in collusion with the Democratic Party, will spend the next few months trying to torpedo the nomination of Appeals Court Justice Neil Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court.

I’ve been listening to the good guys try to explain why we need originalist or constitutionalist judges. I haven’t been satisfied with their explanations.

So here’s my attempt to help.

This is how to explain originalism to your grandchild.

When most conservative leaders or reporters discuss the difference between activist/progressive judges and constitutional/originalist justices, they usually say the following:

“We need originalist justices who go by the original intent of our Founding Fathers when they wrote the Constitution. Those who refuse to interpret by original intent believe that the Constitution is a living, breathing document that should change with the times. We don’t want that. We want judges to look for the original intention of the authors.”

Hence, the idea of originalism.

That answer is good–and true. But I’ve never found it satisfying. It almost sounds like we want to go by what a bunch of old white guys thought two hundred years ago instead of applying their words to our time.

The Founding Fathers, in this explanation, look ancient and narrow and the activists come across as modern and relevant. How could the intentions of two centuries ago be helpful in the modern world?

So, here’s a clearer way of looking at it. You might want to try out these comparisons with your grandchildren or others that need some enlightenment.

Here’s my take on what’s crucial to know in the originalist versus activist debate.

Words versus Feelings

Tell your grandchild that America’s laws are not about fashions and fads. They have nothing to do with hairstyles, fun and games, and all the trivial parts of life. A nation’s laws relate to the really important things that never change–like the meaning of words such as life, freedom, justice, property and all the big stuff of life. These God-given rights are permanent–and shouldn’t be altered just because we feel so.

For example, it’s always wrong to murder an innocent human being. It doesn’t matter whether I’m mad at that person, or they’ve done something awful, or whether I’m just out of control. My anger or feelings never justify me killing them. Never. A right to life is a fixity–a truth. No matter what I feel about it, that doesn’t change what it is and how it should be respected.

Tell your grandkid you can”t change the meaning of important stuff. Murder is always wrong.

Laws versus Rulers

A second angle is the huge difference between laws and people–especially rulers of nations.

For thousands of years–and much of real history isn’t taught any more–most people lived under strong kings or powerful rulers who told them what to do. They possessed no rights, and simply obeyed everything the ruler decreed. The ruler was king. Kings got what they wanted.

Starting with the Magna Carta, and then English Common Law, the biblical worldview triumphed over the power of kings by stating that the king is not “king”–the law is king.

Lex Rex (the Law is King) changed the world by declaring that murder is murder even if the king says it is a way of getting rid of misfits in his kingdom. People have natural rights, and their rights–enshrined in law–are more important than the king’s desires.

An originalist believes in laws more than kings. Tell your grandchild that Henry VIII killed a number of his wives because he didn’t like them. That was wrong.

Good laws are better than bad kings. Good laws don’t change.

Absolutes versus Relativism

These big words may be hard to explain, but let’s try. We live in a time when many progressive folks are trying to convince us that there are no moral absolutes in life. They say that nothing is absolutely true. Ironically, they also tell us they’re absolutely sure about this fact!

Yet, one of the most obvious truths in life is that some things ARE absolute and some things are relative. Those absolutes include the following:

  • Murdering innocents is absolutely wrong–people have a right to live.
  • Forced slavery is absolutely wrong. There is a right to freedom.
  • If an astronaut takes off his oxygen mask in space, he will absolutely die. There are many absolute rules about life and death.

There are also many things in this world that are relative (a matter of opinion or choice):

  • Which country is the best in the world.
  • Which ice cream tastes the most delicious (I vote pistachio!).
  • What kinds of clothes people wear, the best hair styles, and even how families show love and respect for each other.

Those who want activist judges don’t believe that anything is absolute. They say that everything is a matter of personal preference or choice. They want all of our laws to be relative too–we can interpret them any way we want based on the ideas or fads of the time.

Give your grandchild this analogy. If you go up to the top of a high building and someone tells you to jump off, and that you won’t be hurt by jumping–what should you do? Gravity on earth is absolute. It is not relative. It doesn’t matter if your friend believes you can fly and won’t become a grease spot on the pavement. The truth is, if you don’t believe in gravity, you are absolutely wrong.

An originalist understands that there are both moral and physical absolutes in life. They enshrine those good ideas in unchangeable laws.

The activist will tell you to jump if you want. Don’t believe them.

Promises versus Lies

A good way to think about our laws is that they are contracts or promises we make that are important to keep. It is crucial to honor a contract or keep a promise because other people are depending on it. It’s very important to keep our word.

For example, we have many laws (agreements or promises) related to driving a car. First, you have to “promise” to get a license so we know you’ve been trained to drive. You also need to “promise” to stop at stop signs and red lights because if you don’t, you might run into and hurt someone else. You also “promise” to drive the speed limit etc.

The promise or commitment exists so that everyone remains protected and free. Without everyone following the rules, there would be traffic chaos everywhere. On the road, it is important to never “lie to ourselves” and not keep our promise to be a good driver. If we “lie” that the light up ahead is not really “red” but it’s “green”–and we drive through the light–then someone can get killed.

The same is true about good laws. They are our word, our promise, our security, and our safety. Originalist justices don’t let people lie about laws. Red is red and green is green.

Words are promises. If someone promised you something, would you be happy if they lied to you and changed their mind?

That’s what progressive judges do. They lie, change words, and break promises.

It’s always right to keep your good word.

God over Humans

Probably the most important thing to teach your grandchildren is that God’s ways are always right and good, and that people are the ones that can really mess things up.

Originalist justices are committed to following God’s view of law, promises, commitments and promises. God wants people to keep their commitments, honor their words, and never rationalize their actions to do what they want.

On the other hand, progressive judges want to change laws, break or alter promises and commitments to go along with their ideas and agendas. They are not committed to doing what’s best or right for people. They think they are smarter than God.

They are not. Always trust God’s commands over human ideas.

So, in explaining originalism to your grandkids, you don’t have to settle for just “keeping the intent” of the founders. Tell them that murder is always wrong, good laws are better than kings, it’s critical to keep your word (promises), and God is much smarter than we are.

In other words: Don’t jump off that building (Splat!).

And pray that our leaders love us enough to appoint originalist judges.

1 Comment

  1. Paul P on February 10, 2017 at 4:44 am

    Thanks Ron!

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