Bob Wenz has an interesting article on formalist criticism, which he calls "the intentional fallacy". He argues that this fallacy is at the heart of several important issues today: the Supreme Court's disregard of written law, various churches disregard of Scripture, and the idea of gay marriage.
I think it's worth adding that this movement is not only deeply cynical, but deeply anti-democratic as well. The Constitution was set up as a law for the federal government. It was supposed to restrict the federal government and prevent it from infringing the rights and freedoms of the states and citizens. When the federal courts claim that they are allowed to interpret this document in any way they like, they are essentially repudiating the limits on their own powers. They are like a man charged with a crime who gets to interpret the relevant laws in any way he wants.
The situation is similar when church leaders ignore scripture in order to implement their own social philosophies. Church leaders are not supposed to be a law to themselves, they are supposed to be subject to God. When they decide that they are entitled to read scripture in any way they like, then they are essentially rejecting the authority of God in favor of their own wisdom. You can hardly get more anti-Christian than that. The fallen will of man is one of the central teachings of Christianity. Yet these leaders prefer to rely on their own will than on the clear teaching of scripture.
So, if they aren't following the will of God, why do they have a job? What are they getting paid for? Why does anyone listen to them? Surely the members of these churches don't attend sermons to hear the worldly moralizing of some random, Godless, self-important seminary graduate. And surely they don't intend their contributions to support said seminary graduates either. Yet these church leaders seem completely comfortable taking money under false pretenses and undermining the very institution they are paid to shepherd. Have they no shame at all?
These three situations have a common element: they could not get their way with a democratic process. Even though they have the megaphone, they can't convince a majority to side with them. So they abuse their power, using their philosophy of interpretation as an excuse. And they feel good about it because they are so much wiser than the masses. The unruly masses need to be told what-for once in a while.
These leaders have decided that they are not bound by the same rules, laws, and institutions that bind everyone else. And only they have this higher wisdom, not the rest of us. If we did then they wouldn't need to give us so many laws to follow. They always want new laws telling us what drugs we can take, where we can buy them, what kind of car we can buy, how (or whether) we can defend ourselves, where we can smoke, what we can pay people, what we can do with our own land, what kinds of business we can run, what kinds of political advertisements we can run. And they take away a large percentage our money to spend in ways that they think are important, regardless of how we feel about it.
All of these restrictions for us, but not for the leaders. The federal government isn't bound by the Constitution specifically written to bind it. The church hierarchy isn't bound by the Word of the God it supposedly exists to serve. National leaders aren't bound by the tradition and custom that makes civil society possible. These elitists are bound by nothing but their own wisdom and good intentions. Libertarianism for me but not for thee. Just let someone try to pay less than the minimum wage and claim that he is interpreting the intentions of the law.
It is true that the constitution was never followed perfectly and consistently by those in power. And it is certainly true that Christians have not always followed scripture. There have always been philosophies and theories to play against a clear reading of the rules. But this new one, the bald and unapologetic retranslation of anything you don't like, is the most pernicious yet. It lets the powerful do whatever they want, and feel moral about it.
Thanks to One Hand Clapping for the link.