This morning the US Supreme Court ruled that federal subsidies, for states that have refused to set up their own insurance exchanges, are a part of the overall intent of the law. The challenge was based on an isolated wording of the law indicating that individual states had the authority to accept or refuse the federal subsidies, which would have a very clear impact on the implementation of the ACA.
It is not so much the details of the law that I am focusing on here. The key issue is the hermeneutic that led to the challenge in the first place. Hermeneutic, in academic terms, is a method of interpretation. The method of interpretation employed by those who read the words of the ACA and challenged the law was to isolate a few words and to read them out of the overall context of the statute.
The fact that opposition to the ACA comes almost entirely from conservatives is only part of the dynamic that drove this challenge. There’s another dynamic at play that is virtually lost in the analysis. I call it the prooftexting hermeneutic of fundamentalism.
As a parallel development of the Neo-conservative movement in the 1980s (Ronald Reagan, James Baker [the bulldog who was sent to further entangle the election mess in Florida in 2000], James Watt, Newt Gingrich, Jean Kirkpatrick, William F. Buckley, Jr., et al., et al., ad nauseam), the Religious Right and the Moral Majority (Francis Schaeffer, Billy Graham [American revivalism], Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson) grew out of the American Christian fundamentalist movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In fact it’s still around.
One of the basic hermeneutical assumptions of fundamentalism is that the Bible is the inspired word of God. This is very much akin to the approach of Islamic fundamentalism in its assumptions about the Qur’an. Here is how the syllogism of prooftexting works. If our scripture is the inspired word of God, then every syllable is sacred without human contribution. And if every syllable is sacred without human contribution, then every word, every sentence, has a timeless message for all of humankind.
There are multiple issues that follow from this basic syllogism of American Christian fundamentalism, but here I am only interested in one of the implications this has for interpretation within fundamentalist communities, and that is prooftexting. Prooftexting, as religiously justified on the grounds of the fundamentalist assumption of inspiration, is a method of selecting a text out of its context to “prove” the fundamentalist assumption. From a historian’s perspective, this is an egregious misuse of reading texts. But fundamentalists justify it, because it supports the assumptions that undergird the formation of their faith. The closed circularity is so obvious that it shouldn’t warrant pointing out.
Fundamentalism has historically been a separatist movement, choosing to separate themselves from a corrupt society in order to avoid the impurity of the sinful world. Since the emergence of the Religious Right (Moral Majority) movement and its combination with the Neo-conservatives in the 1980s, fundamentalists have shifted their separatist perspective to one of engaging the culture as warriors in God’s army whose mission it is to win back for God the United States as a Christian nation. Never mind the separation of church and state imbedded in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Into the culture war fundamentalist Christian politicians and activists bring with them their refusal to compromise theologically (now politically) and their prooftexting hermeneutic. Hence their challenge of the ACA in the Supreme Court by reading a few words of the statute out of their context while conveniently ignoring the overall intent of the law.
Fortunately, six of the nine Supreme Court justices were intellectually honest enough to understand that reading a few words out of context is a very clear problem. On the other hand, whether the two conservative justices, Roberts and Kennedy, who voted to strike down the challenge voted this way because of their intellectual integrity or because they were politically motivated to pull the GOP’s collective butt out of the fire in view of the gathering storm that would have exploded had they taken health care coverage away from millions of American citizens, well, I suppose that becomes a matter of opinion. Or we could let their legislative track record speak for itself, beginning with their appointment of George W. Bush as president in the 2000 election. Imagine how the entire world would be different had they not followed the fascist path to solving the problems of that election.