Many letters to the editor concerning a variety of topics have inspired this response.
Exegesis is the process by which one extracts the truths of literature. This process draws out the meaning of a given writing to understand the message therein. Eisegesis pushes understanding into a literary passage. Eisegesis, therefore, impresses a literary rendering with new meaning, extra meaning. One process (exegesis) seeks truth. The other process (eisegesis) attempts to superimpose another meaning on literature.
Case in point – eisegesis is responsible for interposing a right for our government to curtail religious practice on our constitution. This is born from an impression of a phrase absent from the Constitution; “separation of church and state” coupled with the opening statement of the first amendment, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” This eisegesis ignores the second part of this phrase, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” or adds words to the original document in the analysis. This error grew exponentially to the point where now many see our country was founded upon a secular basis. Some claim religious freedoms, though not promotable by our government, can be curtailed through an ignorance or omission in public institutions.
Exegesis involves extracting truths from literature in a three-prong perspective alien to many commentators today. First, historical – what is the historical reference during the time surrounding the literature as developed (time period, political forces, purpose, current events)? Second, context – what is in the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the entire book or writing? Third, grammatical – how is the sentence constructed, and specifically how are the words used? This may involve studying the literature in its original language if foreign (i.e., study Les Misérables in the original French).
Where eisegesis can find new understanding in any literature, depending upon other literary, emotive or personal influences and perspective; exegesis, when properly exercised will only derive the true meaning from a given literary work. This type of literary research is also known as lower criticism. In applying these techniques to our Constitution’s First Amendment, we find the following.
Historically, the first 10 Amendments of our Constitution were taken from the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was generated for the people in response to concerns that the original Constitution might eventually permit a tyrannical central government to evolve. Our country broke from Great Britain because of tyranny. The purpose of the Bill of Rights was to specifically curtail governmental authority. For these reasons, the portion which reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” is counted as one of the most cherished and clearly articulated phrases of freedom and liberty in world history. Interestingly, the only words ever contested were “inherent and inalienable” which were replaced by “certain inalienable.” All believed a Creator bestowed these rights and liberty.
Contextually, we begin with the founding document that opens with “We the People…” The people themselves then give the individual articles the authority and position they have. Their personal freedom is being exercised as they choose their government, its construct, and the authority it is given. With a historical understanding of the origination of the amendments themselves, we find the First Amendment stands for a personal freedom to exercise – not limit – religious belief. This is the first personal freedom referenced and it levies the first restriction on government. Being the first amendment, it sets the tone and authority for what follows. It also flavors the entire document. It does not call for government activity, but a restriction thereof, or inactivity if you will. Historically, and contextually our study shows the Constitution denies governmental authority to curtail the freedom for any one to practice their religion, including the solicitation of others for conversion to a religion. This is clearly a “free exercise thereof” for any religion, whether Christian, Islam, Buddhism, or atheism. The amendment itself is labeled “Freedom of Religion, Press,” indicating a preeminence to freedom of religion even above that of the press. Equally, in reviewing the amendment itself, we find the phrases “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech,” before the phrase “or the press” correlating their priorities with the title. Separating the press’ speech freedoms and placing them in subordinate priority to – but not necessarily connected with – the people.
Grammatically, we find the amendment is a single sentence. Historically, this was how things were written in the 18th century. Many continuing phrases were connected with semicolons to complete a thought. For instance, our Thanksgiving proclamation by George Washington was written in this fashion, as were the minutes recorded in the Journals of the Continental Congress. Here we find the main theme of this sentence is that “Congress shall make no law.” This correlates the historical and contextual aspects with the opening tenor of the amendment. The next phrases “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” indicate the amendment deals with a freedom from any law of Congress concerning religion. This is followed by, “or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;” again indicating a freedom from any Congressional law that abridges, censors, or edits a person’s speech or freedom of the press. Third, we find “or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” This is connected to the first two where people are given freedom to assemble without congressional litigious interference or harassment. Further, a right to petition the government for grievance exists under the same circumstances. The key phrase of concern then is, “Congress shall make no law…” Those things that follow explain the restrictions inherent in the opening statement. They are individually connected within their phraseology, and literarily connected in the whole.
When reading, be concerned about individuals who attempt to explain things to you. Many write to purport an agenda. Emotions cloud issues and facts; emotions about politics and religion especially. Research what you read and learn the truth for yourself. Any given writer may have an axe to grind.
Tim Senter, Lander