Spotlight Interview with Adam Carrington: The Big and Small “C” Constitution

Adam Carrington

Have you ever wanted to just sit down and ask a college professor to help you think through what you’re hearing in the headlines? Adam Carrington is a professor at Hillsdale College. He’s an expert on U.S. politics and the Supreme Court. He joins Carmen regularly on Mornings with Carmen. Recently Carmen got him talking about what really makes us “we the people” and why it’s such a precious reality to preserve and foster.

Transcript (begins at 23:50):

Carmen LaBerge:  So I would like to start with this Pew research that we all just learned about at the very end of last week, this religious landscape of the United States. And what Pew is observing is that the percentage of American adults who self identify as Christian continues to decline. And we have now arrived at something like 65% of the adult American population self identifying as Christian. I want to start by you helping us understand why that matters in terms of the body politic. Why does it matter that at this point only 65% and it’s a declining percentage of the population, it’s not headed in the right direction, why does that matter in terms of the way we function as a people?

Adam C.:  I’d say it operates on two levels. I think one way to think about our government is we have what you could call a big C constitution and a small C constitution. The big C is the document that we study and that starts with we the people. But there’s underlying that a small C one which I’d say is our habits, our morals, what we understand ourselves to be as human beings, what’s required of us. And I think in our government especially, the big C constitution depends on the small C one. That if we begin our preamble, we, the people, meaning we govern, then that assumes certain things about the small C constitution, about how we are able as individuals to govern ourselves, to see ourselves as moral beings.

Adam C.:  I used a proverb last time. Proverbs 25:28 says, a man without self control is like a city broken into and left without walls. And I think the way that someone like John Adams or George Washington would articulate that is if you can’t govern yourself, then if you try to govern a body politic it’s going to be chaos, it’s going to be immoral, it’s going to be destructive. And I think what they’ve all connected that to is the idea that a religious foundation is crucial for most people to have that. So I think that’s one of the big problems. I’ll just add one other quick one is that I think in the end we are worshiping beings. We all want to have a God and have gods, whether we admit them or not. And if Christianity is not going to be it, something else is filling the gap.

Adam C.:  And I think some of the intense hyper partisanship and intense loneliness and despair that we see in many people’s lives I think is attached to having more people with false gods than before, which has fed into some of the worst tendencies of our society and our politics. So I think this is massive on many scales. I think you can tell by the way I’m trying to portray that.

Carmen LaBerge:  Well I think to that second point that you made Adam, glory is really heavy. It’s weighty and we are not designed to bear the weight of it. And so when we become the object of our own glorification and affection, we can’t bear the weight of it. Other people can’t bear the weight of it if we try to make them idols. Marriage can’t bear the weight of it. It’s not designed to, and we’ve tried to make an idol of that. Kids can’t bear the weight of it if their… I mean on and on and on and on, right? And so when you talk about the way people now self identify, if our first identity is not in Christ, if we’re not placing the glory and the weight of it where it is designed to rightly belong, the structure at every level collapses.

Adam C.:  I think that’s absolutely right. And I think that the great lie or among the great lies in the garden of Eden was you shall be like gods being a good thing. And I think that you’re right, this weight of glory means that we not only demand too much of others and ourselves, we exercise the righteous judgment of God unrighteously. And in doing so I think not only deny the humanity of others, but we try to bring heaven to earth, creating our sort of own utopia of rights and wrongs that are often distant from God’s rights and wrongs. And I think instead of bringing heaven on earth, we bring a taste of hell on earth. I think that’s really what that ends up doing to our own souls and to our interactions with other people.

Adam C.:  It’s amazing what a restraint being a citizen of heaven is, to how you exercise your citizenship on earth, but how that makes you a better citizen on earth. Recognizing that ultimately you’re a sojourner here, and that ultimate justice ultimate right, the ultimate ruler is actually in heaven. Not in the white house, or your Congressman or even yourself exercising commenting on Facebook. I think that’s a very good point.

Carmen LaBerge:  And one of the things that I feel like we observe is as people reject an identity in Christ, as a smaller and smaller percentage of the population identifies openly as Christian, therefore identifying with Christ, we begin identifying as other things. And so when we think about identity politics and we think of all the ways, all the lesser things that people identify as or with, we then just devolve into this deeply partisan mess that we find ourselves in.

Adam C.:  Oh, absolutely. And I think you’re right to connect this to identity politics, where you find meaning, you find who you are most fundamentally in your race, in your sexual identity. You find your meaning, and I think this is a danger too, even among some self-identified Christians, I think there’s a worry that to what degree do you take those identities and contort Christianity to be those things. As opposed to Christianity being something that changes you, to what degree do you change it? And this is something that every generation of Christians struggle with but I think we particularly do, is to not remake Christianity in our own image but be renewed and restored to the correct image by Christianity itself.

Carmen LaBerge:  Adam, let’s continue this conversation in just a moment and let’s apply it maybe specifically to what is happening at the US Supreme Court. I know you have been paying attention to a particular set of cases that are around identity and around how we think about one another and employment. And so let’s have this conversation about how we see ourselves in one another and how we treat ourselves in one another when we come right back. I’m talking with Adam Carrington from Hillsdale College. You can find him on Twitter @carringtonam or at

Carmen LaBerge:  Continuing my conversation with Dr. Adam Carrington from Hillsdale College. Adam, you love the Supreme Court, we all know that. You’re a junkie in ways that the rest of us are not, so you’ve actually been listening to oral arguments in a particular case before the Supreme Court. It’s actually a set of cases. Tell us what that is, what you’re hearing.

Adam C.:  Right. At least as far as the background, there’s cases related to title seven of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And what that landmark legislation did was ban discrimination in employment, including hiring and firing people because of sex. That’s what the statute says, you can’t fire or hire people on the basis of sex. And these key cases are asking, “What if you fire someone based on their sexual orientation, or their status as a transgender person? Does that constitute discrimination on the basis of sex?” And of course there is a legal question here that was I think the focus of the actual oral arguments and probably will be the focus of the decision when it comes down, we don’t know when. And that is this question of sex stereotypes. What does it mean to stereotype someone on the basis of sex?

Adam C.:  And a lot of us will say, I think rightly, that there are ways that we can do that badly, that we can say women should only be at home or be grade school teachers and secretaries. Something like that, which I think oversimplifies male-female distinctions. But what’s being asked here is, is it an illegitimate sex stereotype to say women should only date and marry men, or that your biological sex is what everyone should demand you act according to? And that’s the legal stuff but I think based on what we were saying last segment, I think underneath and unaddressed is a fundamental question of what it means to be human, and what we can expect of the idea of God creating us male and female. And I think that’s something that the court probably won’t address but has to assume in anything that decides, and is very much based on what I think we were saying last segment.

Carmen LaBerge:  The conversation in question about the creator seems to me to be pressing itself forward today in ways that are harder and harder to ignore. At some point we have to deal with the question of whether or not we are self-made or genned up by some accident of time and matter and chemistry or chance, or whether or not there really is a God, and whether or not that God is the God who I certainly profess him to be. And so how do we have a conversation about humanity, apart from having a conversation about a creator?

Adam C.:  It’s hard to do so because it goes back to self deifying that you were talking about before and kind of the dangers of that. Because if our freedom is not the freedom to live according to how God defined us, and what the purpose is God created us for, if that’s not freedom, then the freedom is self creation, that we basically define our own meaning of existence. And that’s very attractive to sinners like we all are. But I think in the end it’s something that then can destroy us and damage us and damage us in relation to each other. And I think that question of who we are and how we know who we are and the question of whether behind that is a God that has created a natural law that binds us lovingly, that is a loving bindness, a binding of us for our good, that’s a question that really I think is inescapable. Even in a court case like this, I think they’re going to try to escape it. But if you really dig down, they’re going to have to make assumptions about what that means for human beings.

Carmen LaBerge:  Okay Adam, assuming that most of us are not listening nor reading the transcripts of the Supreme Court oral arguments, I am wondering what you are hearing or what you are not hearing in terms of the conversations that the justices are having. They struggle in conversation with one another, I mean, this actually is a deliberative process of some sort of variety. So take us into that. Help us understand what kind of struggle takes place among these justices when they’re trying to discern something like this.

Adam C.:  Right. I’ll mention the process first. The simple process is after they heard these oral arguments where several attorneys got up and were questioned by the justices, made their case, they have a bunch of briefs that have been submitted to them, they go into chambers, basically a room by themselves. Nobody else, no clerks, no press, no litigants. And they vote. And they discuss why they want to vote the way they do on who should win these cases. And then after that they spend sometimes months and months, and I think this case is going to take months, verbally and in written form writing and discussing with each other whose side is the law on. Until finally they get a vote of the majority and an opinion of the majority, and dissenting and other opinions that basically will display to us the culmination of their thinking together.

Adam C.:  And I think that a lot of it is going to be on what does the text say? But again, I think you can’t get away from the idea that they are going to have an anthropology, an idea of what human beings are. And it’s going to be very fascinating to see in our time and place what that assumption is as they try to refine and discuss with each other because laws aren’t mere articulations of will. Laws are supposed to be connected to reason and reasons founder, which is God and his word.

Carmen LaBerge:  I am so grateful that God gave you the mind that he gave you and the interest that he gave you so that you can help us understand not just what’s happening at the Supreme Court, but help us understand how we as Christians actually sort of navigate in the body politic that exists today in the United States of America. You help us remember who we once were and who God has called us to be, and you help us see the difference in terms of our own moment. Because we are called to be the citizens who have the privilege of living right here and right now, bringing that positive witness to bear in the conversations of our day. And so thanks for all the ways you help us do that Adam.

Adam C.:  Well that’s very gracious of you. And I would just say we’re all learning together and we’re all trying to serve God together.