Thomas Jefferson, as Garry Wills recently suggested in these pages, is memorable for a vision of human equality that has moved later generations to achieve more than he did or even tried to do.1 Near the center of that vision was a belief embodied in every social revolution and articulated in Jefferson’s dictum that the earth belongs to the living, that “one generation is to another as one independent nation to another.” To fulfill the equality of generations, Jefferson, in letters to his friend Madison, made a declaration of generational independence. Each generation was entitled to wipe the slate clean, to throw off any burdens thrust upon them by their predecessors. No people should be required to pay public debts incurred before they were born. All laws and constitutions should be periodically reconsidered.

It was an impossible dream. No one escapes from the past without bearing some of its burdens. As Jefferson acknowledged in that other Declaration for which he is best known, “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” But the possibility of escape from inherited social evils is what drives revolution and reform. Reformers may sometimes state their goals as restoration of a distant past, but only where its contours can be imagined to fit a present ideal. Jefferson once proposed that the seal of the United States should contain images of Hengist and Horsa, the legendary Saxon kings who established in Britain the ideal society that the United States would restore. But Jefferson did not think that the government he helped to found, the forms he helped to establish, the evils he was willing to suffer, should inhibit future Americans. He could not, as president of the United States, establish the equality of generations any more than the equality of races. He did not even succeed in getting rid of the national debt (or of his personal debts). But he never ceased believing that future generations would do better. Vincent Crapanzano quotes a letter written forty years after the Declaration of Independence:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew this age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in the laws and constitutions…. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.

Jefferson was what Crapanzano calls an aspirationist, one who aspires to achieve a goal without the inhibitions imposed by “literalism,” that is, by insistence on the literal meaning of words in a given text. Crapanzano finds literalism crippling American aspirations and progress today in a variety of ways, only two of which he examines at length in this thoughtful, suggestive, and exasperating book. The first is the formal biblical literalism of American Fundamentalists. The second is the constitutional literalism espoused by a number of jurists and law professors. Crapanzano is an anthropologist, and he approaches the Fundamentalists with the same detached empathy he might bring to a study of, say, Trobriand Islanders, whose language he has had to learn in order to explain their strange culture to the modern world. He is less neutral in dealing with the lawyers who, despite their legalist jargon, speak a language he already knows.

Fundamentalists serve as an ideal type of literalists, for it is their belief in the literal meaning of every word in the Bible that distinguishes them. They can belong to a variety of denominations, Baptist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Congregational, or more often to no denomination. They make it a matter of principle for the congregations they dominate to separate from any organization, church, or denomination that does not fully endorse their literalism; and they cherish their independence from any supervisory body. Occasionally they have joined in loose federations like the American Conference of Undenominational Churches in the 1920s or the American Council of Christian Churches in the 1940s. But the only institutional connection they have consistently maintained is to Bible study groups, schools, and seminaries, where they can focus their efforts on the literal meaning of the sacred Word.

Not everyone is capable of cutting through extraneous considerations and personal biases to the true literal meaning of the Word. In the tradition of Calvinist Christianity, Fundamentalists believe that only those converted by the Spirit, only those who have been born again, can discern the true meaning of Scripture. And for those that Crapanzano encountered the new birth itself was not so much a mystical visitation of the Spirit as a new attachment to the Word. Conversion might be initiated, as it traditionally has been, by the Word preached or read; but whatever prompted it, the most important result was reverence for the concrete, visible, readable text of what God said. In eliciting accounts of the conversion experience, varying in many ways from individual to individual, Crapanzano found that “all of them, either directly or indirectly, referred to the significance the Bible now had for them—the security it gave them.”


Bible study for Fundamentalists does not promote the kind of soul-searching that the insistence on conversion by the Spirit induced in earlier Calvinists. Fundamentalists, Crapanzano finds, tend “to externalize their self-understanding, judging their acts and thoughts as directly as possible in terms of biblical precept.” By the same token they have little use for psychological counseling, religious or secular. “Nowhere,” one of their spokesmen writes, “does Scripture advise people to seek answers by looking within.”

The conflicts that outsiders observe between factual statements in the Bible and the facts of history, human experience, and scientific observation are not as troubling to Fundamentalists as we may think they ought to be. The crucial point of conflict is the first chapter of Genesis. Literalism requires the Fundamentalists to see the world and all of us in it as the product of six eventful twenty-four-hour days approximately ten thousand years ago. Literalism begets creationism, and Fundamentalism is defined for most outsiders by its perverse refusal to accept the overwhelming evidence of evolution. The Fundamentalist challenge to evolution, dramatized in the Scopes Trial of 1925, has made evolution a metonym for all science and Fundamentalist creationism thus a denial of all science. It comes as something of a surprise, then, to find Fundamentalists engaging in, literally, rocket science. In concluding his depiction of them, Crapanzano relates an episode that suggests graphically how easily their alien world entwines with ours. At a Fundamentalist Bible class in Pasadena, he encounters an engineer from Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

After we had talked for a few minutes, I asked him if he was a creationist. He said he was: he believed that God had created the universe in six literal days, and that the universe was probably no more than ten thousand years old. “How do you reconcile that with the research being done at Cal Tech?” I asked. “Have you read the latest research on light years?” he answered. In the brief time we had before class began, he told me that, regardless of that research (whatever it was, he never specified), it was clear from Genesis 1:14-19 that God had created the sun, moon, and stars to be seen by Adam. “Whatever the speed of light, God created the stars, however far away they may be, so that they would be immediately visible on earth. He jumped time and set the whole light thing going.” He gestured, as though he were pulling taffy, demonstrating how God had stretched beams of light from the stars to the earth.

For Crapanzano the episode illustrates the mental gymnastics required to reconcile science and biblical chronology, timeless truths and events in time. But it should also tell us that Fundamentalist literalism may not blinker the mind as severely as we might suppose. The JPL engineer told Crapanzano that all of the engineers in his particular unit were “Christians,” by which he presumably meant Fundamentalists. And in fact there are many engineers among creationists.2 Fundamentalism is not necessarily incompatible with Newtonian physics and perhaps not with quantum physics either. Some of the rapidly changing theories of astrophysics may even have been what the JPL engineer was referring to as “the latest research on light years.” A Fundamentalist science may be as oxymoronic as creation science, but Fundamentalists may not be as out of place in the laboratory as their literalism might suggest. And literalism, at its worst, may not be quite as antithetical to Jefferson’s aspiration of generational independence as we might assume.

Crapanzano takes the Fundamentalists as he finds them and expounds the manifestations of their literalism without condescension or contradiction. Although he recounts the shifting divisions and diversity that have marked the history of Fundamentalism throughout the country, he remains the anthropologist, probing the attitudes and beliefs of those, mainly in southern California, with whom he is able to exchange words face-to-face in the here and now. They try to convert him, but he does not try to convert them. He makes his objections to their literalism only as a way of clarifying its implications through their responses. The first part of the book, in which these exchanges figure so largely, can be read as autobiography. In the second part, dealing with literalism in the law, autobiography and anthropological detachment give way to argument. Indeed the objective depiction of Fundamentalist literalism serves as a way of lending plausibility to the subjective indictment of literalism as a bar to Jeffersonian aspiration in the legal profession and in American life generally.


Although, as he tells us—he is disarmingly candid about himself throughout—he interviewed lawyers, judges, and legal scholars and found them much more open to discussion than the Fundamentalists, most of his work on the law was textual: “the analysis of law review articles, books, and court decisions.” And his argument too is textual, against the written opinions of those lawyers, judges, and legal scholars who insist, like the Fundamentalists, on literal adherence to a sacred text. A statement by Justice Hugo Black in 1969, contrasting with Jefferson’s in 1816, serves as an example of what Crapanzano is against:

The Constitution is my legal bible; its plan of our government is my plan, and its destiny my destiny. I cherish every word of it, from the first to the last, and I personally deplore even the slightest deviation from its least important commands.

Black’s adherence to the literal meaning of the Constitution did not prevent him from supporting the progressive enactments of the New Deal that other jurists found unconstitutional, but it did lead him to dissent in the landmark case (Griswold v. Connecticut) that overturned the Connecticut law interdicting birth control and inaugurated the judicial recognition of a right to privacy. The literal reading of the Constitution combined with the ascription of sacred authority to it can result in legal opinions, like Black’s in this case, that make almost as bizarre a contrast with currently accepted social norms as Fundamentalism does with currently accepted scientific postulates. Robert Bork has argued that the free speech protected by the First Amendment is properly only “political speech” and not the other forms of expression to which it has been extended and to which we now expect it to apply. Raoul Berger, a Harvard law professor, has maintained that the “equal protection of the laws” guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment includes only the right to make binding contracts, to own property, and to have access to the courts. It cannot be extended, as it has been, to guard equalities of opportunity that have come through judicial action to be part of our lives.

Legal literalists insist on interpreting the words of the Constitution and of statutes by reference to the original intent of the people who wrote them or to their original meaning, the meaning the words would have carried to most people at the time of writing. Crapanzano has a good deal of fun pointing out the fictions that such an interpretation requires us to accept. Obviously the fifty-five men who drafted the Constitution in 1787 and the hundreds who participated in the state conventions that ratified it could not all have given its words the same meaning, and there is no way of knowing what most of them thought. The authority of the Constitution rests on its own assertion of its supremacy as the expression of the will of a single people who did not exist as such before its creation of them in its opening “We, the people.” Its “original” meaning has to have a beginning in time but then has to be treated as timeless. Though it is full of ambiguities designed to secure acceptance by different people who could read its provisions in different ways in different situations, it has to be treated the way Fundamentalists treat the Bible, as the utterance of a single mind with a single intent.

Crapanzano recognizes that the adjudication of cases requires judges to ascribe an unambiguous single meaning to the words of the Constitution and of the statutes the courts enforce. In our adversary system decisions have to be for or against the plaintiff or defendant; normally no Solomonic division is possible. And the certitude of decision has to rest on a definitive interpretation of what the law requires. What it requires may in fact be determined by a ritualistic negotiation of different interpretations presented to the court by attorneys for each side and by the moral, religious, economic, and political views of the judges themselves. But it cannot be acknowledged to be so in the final result. The decision must rest on the certitude of the law, and a literal reading of the words does help to impart that certitude.

What bothers Crapanzano about the literalists is that they claim to be unaffected by their own bias, by popular opinion, political party, or anything extraneous to the original meaning or original intent of words, whether in the Constitution or in the laws made under its authority. “How,” he asks, “can one possibly separate the law from moral and political considerations? How can a judge possibly bracket off his or her political and moral beliefs in coming to a legal decision, in interpreting the Constitution or a statute?” Whether judges want to or not, they do make law. In the words of the late Edward Levi, quoted by Crapanzano, they “do more than decide cases. They give broad direction to the statute.” Crapanzano evidently feels that they would give better direction if they stopped trying to persuade themselves that they were simply carrying out the commands of a sacred text and recognized that they were continually shaping and reshaping society to conform to moral and political ideals that they read into the text.

The advantage of such a recognition would seem to be in exposing the conservative resistance to change that literalism masks. Literalism is wedded to the doctrine of judicial restraint, that governmentally enjoined social change is the prerogative of the legislative branch of government, not of judges. Their role is to prevent any legislative change that violates the Constitution, even if the change embodies widespread popular belief. “The Constitution,” Justice Antonin Scalia says, “is meant to protect us against, rather than to conform to, current ‘widespread belief.”‘ Crapanzano allows that literalism is not necessarily conservative, but he seems to have forgotten the era in which it was the loose interpretation of the Constitution that blocked the laws from catching up with what Jefferson called “the progress of the human mind.” Scalia’s literalist statement makes a fair parallel to Justice Holmes’s literalist dissent in Lochner v. New York (1905), which reminded the Court that the Fourteenth Amendment “does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.” The progress of the legal mind caught up with Holmes in 1937 when the Court reversed Lochner and admitted that minimum wage laws do not violate the Constitution.

Literalism, as Crapanzano sees it, is a form of thinking or refusing to think that has come to afflict American society (as it afflicted Holmes?). In religion and the law it can be seen as an assertion of certitude in reaction against the dissolution of meaning inherent in postmodernism. But it extends to other fields, and in his view has become “a widespread characteristic of American thought.” The charm of his relaxed, conversational style almost has us believing that there is such a thing as literalism, which must indeed be widespread. But we may begin to have doubts when he cites offhandedly as two other outstanding examples of literalism first the role that trauma has come to play as a given in psychoanalysis and secondthe determinative role popularly assigned to genes in human behavior:

We take the gene to be a given, like a word that can be read literally. We ignore the fact that genes are potentials whose actualization depends on complex factors.

If these are examples of literalism, the word means no more than the attribution of certitude to the uncertain or of simplicity to the complex. That may be a widespread characteristic of American thought today, but no more so than of other thought in other places at other times, indeed at all times: the British attributing the American Revolution to a handful of agitators, Americans attributing British tyranny to George III, the French thinking Coca-Cola will destroy their civilization, anyone accepting a slogan at face value. It is hard to see that literalism in this larger sense carries the special appeal or influence among Americans that Crapanzano credits it with. He does not portray it as a movement, organization, or school of thought with recognized principles and devotees eager to apply it outside religion and the law. It becomes, rather, a simple-minded acceptance of propositions that conceal unrecognized complexities. If he can extend the word figuratively in this way to something other than literal interpretation of a text, there may be less than meets the eye in the challenge that Crapanzano offers to the doctrine of judicial restraint by coupling it with Fundamentalism.

Even taken in a stricter—dare we say more literal?—sense, the prevalence of literalism in American religion and law is easily exaggerated. Fundamentalism is a more elusive and more protean entity than Crapanzano’s detailing of its doctrines implies. From its beginnings after the First World War it has been a movement, not a denomination, not a church, not even an organization. Without an institutional center, it has been torn by contradictory impulses: an evangelical urge to save souls and a separatist urge to escape the wickedness of the world. During the last half-century Fundamentalists have shared as evangelicals in the emergence of powerful, but often ephemeral, new religious structures, in “parachurch” networks of believers with no for-mal affiliation, in megachurches like Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Church, claiming 20,000 members in the 1980s, in evanescent religious communities held together only by devotion to charismatic leaders on radio and television like Falwell or Oral Roberts or Pat Robertson.

But Fundamentalists retain a separatist suspicion of other evangelicals who cleave too closely to the world. In the 1950s many at first embraced, but then repudiated, the evangelism of Billy Graham because Graham became tainted by accepting support from non-Fundamentalists. More recently they have joined other evangelicals in the Moral Majority and the Christian right. But the alliance is purely political and certainly not driven by any common literalism. Fundamentalists, by Crapanzano’s account, have no use for Pentecostalists, because they “give greater credence to experience than to doctrine and the careful reading of Scripture.”

But the most sympathetic historian of Fundamentalism acknowledges that “the pentecostal-charismatic movement is quickly supplanting the fundamentalist-conservative one as the most influential evangelical impulse at work today.”3 And indeed, among the Fundamentalists that Crapanzano describes, their very literalism deprives them of the energies that the larger, more dynamic sects gain from their emphasis on the inner workings of the Spirit. Conversion that results mainly in Bible study is less compelling than the holy ecstasy of the thousands stricken to the ground at the feet of popular evan-gelists from George Whitefield in the eighteenth century to Billy Sunday in the twentieth. The literalism of Fundamentalists feeds their separatist tendencies and blunts their evangelism. It not only isolates them from traditional Christianity but increasingly threatens the place they have held in the twentieth-century reconfiguration of American religion.

Literalism in the law certainly has conspicuous advocates in the profession. But as Crapanzano depicts them they scarcely dominate the scene. Bork’s remarks at his Senate confirmation hearings figure largely in the book, but those hearings resulted in his rejection. Scalia is a Supreme Court justice, but the statements Crapanzano quotes from him to illustrate literalism are all from minority opinions that the Court rejected. The same is true of Black’s opinion in Griswold. In his preface Crapanzano endows literalists with “enormous sway in law and politics” but then admits that “their greatest influence, like that of the Fundamentalists, is, I suspect, less through direct accomplishment—the overturning of a decision they find obnoxious—than by indirection: by forcing their opponents to frame a problem in their terms.” But wait. By his own account, Fundamentalists, instead of forcing their opponents to frame a problem in their terms, orient their thought in their opponents’ terms:

It is the opponent, at least as perceived by the Fundamentalists, who determines their defensive posture—how truths are framed, and expressed, what is selected and what is neglected, the way to read and interpret.

And the opponents whom the legal literalists have obliged to frame problems in their terms have been mainly other legal theorists out of court. He does not attempt to show that majority opinions in actual cases have tended to refute the literalists. He has simply shown what should be obvious: that the adversary system under constitutional government places a burden of proof on those who stretch the words of a statute or a constitutional provision beyond their literal meaning.

The juxtaposition of Fundamentalism and the literalism of judicial restraint, along with the identification of both with trends in psychoanalysis and gene theory, where there is no text to be literal about, suggests that Crapanzano has taken an incidental resemblance among disparate phenomena and translated it into a force that actually has little to do with the causes of any of them and nothing to do with American culture as such. He has given us an engaging first-hand report of his encounters with Fundamentalists, but his identification of their literalism with that of modern advocates of judicial restraint is more an accusation of bad judgment in judges than a demonstration that they share in a doctrinaire devotion to verbal certitude at the expense of reason. If Americans are resistant to the aspirations of generational independence that Jefferson endorsed, it is certainly not because of a peculiar addiction to reading words literally. Literalism makes sense as an epithet, but on the evidence presented here it does not make much sense either as an analytical tool or as a widespread characteristic of American thought.

This Issue

July 20, 2000