Of all the pillars of modern conservatism, the one that has long struck me as the most obviously absurd is the doctrine of orginalism. Think about it. Are we really supposed to take seriously the idea that the Supreme Court of 2005 — in an era of spyware, genetic mapping, and billion dollar hedge funds — is supposed to make its judgments based on divining the intent of a small group of men who lived in a simple agrarian community 200 years ago? Presented baldly, it's an idea that wouldn't pass muster with a bright 10 year old.
And yet, despite the fact that originalism is little more than a transparent and flimsy attempt to justify a fondness for 18th century social values, it has become the centerpiece of a vast and increasingly popular intellectual enterprise. As Dahlia Lithwick puts it today, "the majority of the nation seems now to be of the firm belief that there is only one way to view the U.S. Constitution: in the way the framers first intended."
Constitutional law is outside my area of expertise, so take all that follows with several big grains of salt. That said, Originalism - or the "original intent" approach to Constitutional jurisprudence - sounds very, very familiar to these Middle East expert ears. Basically, it sounds like Islamic fundamentalist (salafi) jurisprudence.
Islamic jurisprudence after the passing of Mohammed revolved around establishing procedures for interpreting the Quranic message. For most Muslims, this expanded to include the "hadith", or stories about the life and sayings of the Prophet. Competing schools of jurisprudence argued over what sources could be considered legitimate, how to interpret the meaning of the text of the Quran and the Hadith. Elaborate rules were created for establishing the "authenticity" of various hadith - who first told the story, the chain of transmission, how to adjudicate different versions of the same story. Over the course of Islamic history, an enormous and complex body of interpetation and jurisprudence accumulated, divided into distinct schools. The Islamic reformers - the original salafis - in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - called to sweep away these centuries of accumulated traditions and return directly to the text of the Quran and authentic hadith.
From what I can tell, that's pretty much exactly what Originalist scholars do. Brush aside centuries of accretion to return directly to the text of the founding document. Prioritize this original text over all later interpretations, even if the conditions of modern life dramatically differ from those prevailing at the time of its drafting. And when in doubt about how to interpret the meaning of the text, apply an elaborate hereneutics to deduce the "original intent" of the framers - which often means studying the writings and lives of the individual founding fathers (what did James Madison mean by "X"?), or pretty much the same thing as jurisprudence of the hadith.
Do I think that Originalist scholars are actually Islamic (or Christian) fundamentalists? No, of course not. But it still suggests an interesting avenue of research for some enterprising young scholar who is not me. There have been plenty of scholarly attempts to compare the rise of Christian evangelicalism in the United States with the parallel rise of Islamic fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism, etc - with the big Fundamentalism Project in the 1980s representing a bit of the high water mark for that grand comparative enterprise. There have been some attempts to compare the rise of Christian political activism with Islamic political activism, and comparisons of Christian evangelicalism and the Islamic dawa. But I don't know of anyone who has compared the Originalist doctrine of constitutional law with Islamic fundamentalist jurisprudence... probably because there's nothing to it, but wouldn't it be fun to try and play it out? And perhaps to explore why this particular legal approach has proven so attractive in the United States and the Muslim world alike?