Mark Silk on Impeachment and the Decline of Constitutional Faith

In this image from video, presiding officer Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts listens during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 30 2020. (Senate Television via AP)

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Whatever else the impeachment of a president is, it’s an exercise in constitutional faith. Senators and members of Congress, legal scholars and media pundits exegete the relevant words from Articles I and II, invoke the utterances of the framers, and make their professions.

Of the latter, the most famous is Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan (D), pronounced as a member of the House Judiciary Committee just before it passed articles of impeachment for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress against President Richard Nixon in July of 1974.

“My faith in the Constitution is whole,” Jordan said. “It is complete. It is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

By that time, release of the White House tapes had effectively established that Nixon had engaged in the coverup of a crime against his political opponents. He resigned rather than face certain impeachment by the whole House and likely conviction in the Senate.

The situation was much less clear during the impeachment of President Clinton. The president had fallen into a perjury trap and lied under oath about consensual sexual contact with a White House intern. There was deep partisan disagreement about whether that constituted a high crime or misdemeanor.

“If it were to be asked,” declared House manager Steven Buyer (R-In.), “‘What is the most sacred duty and the greatest source of security in a Republic?’ the answer would be, an inviolable respect for the Constitution and Laws.” By Republican standards, Clinton had disrespected both, and needed to be thrust from office. Pleading for enough senators’ votes to convict, House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) expressed the hope that in 100 years “people will look back at what we’ve done and say, ‘they kept the faith.'”

In disagreement, the president’s Democratic defenders testified to their own constitutional faith.

Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told her hometown paper that impeaching the president for lying about sex would trample the Constitution, that “sacred document.” And in his virtuoso summation of the president’s case before the Senate, the recently retired Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers (D) announced that he had not come to defend Bill Clinton the man but rather: “It is the weight of history on all of us, and it is my reverence for that great document — you have heard me rail about it for 24 years — that we call our Constitution, the most sacred document to me next to the Holy Bible.”

When it came to doing his job as chief executive, the behavior for which Clinton was impeached was inconsequential. To the extent that his accusers actually believed that it merited impeachment, it was on the grounds that lying — about anything — under oath was per se an unforgivable high crime.

This time around, there has been a significant shift in professions of constitutional faith. Instead of acclaiming the Constitution itself as a sacred document, antagonists on both sides have shifted to talking about the constitutional oath as the sacred thing.

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Source: Religion News Service

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