Want to start a verbal ruckus? Bring on the battle over the Constitution.
No longer is the Constitution merely a venerated document the National Archives keeps under glass. Now it ignites contentious flashpoints. Americans argue over what’s rooted in our nation’s formative document: War powers, gay marriage, birthright citizenship, restoring the gold standard, the vice president’s role and campaign funding, for starters.
Political opponents fight these battles that make up a war fought about the government’s proper role in relation to citizens’ personal rights.
Alarmed Tea Party activists chafe at Washington’s creeping power. To restore America, they say we must retrieve the Constitution’s original meaning, which signers endorsed on Sept. 17, 1787. Defined as “originalists,” they believe the Constitution limits government’s power, as originally conceived.
Others strongly differ, saying the Constitution is a living document, which evolves because cultural changes affect its meaning. They reject a Constitution locked in an 18th-century time capsule.
Progressive interpreters think the Constitution’s articles are expressed in expansive, suggestive language, not limiting or specific. For instance, Congress is allowed to levy taxes to provide “for the general welfare,” to regulate commerce, and to do what is “necessary and proper” to carry out its role. Doesn’t this allow for government’s expansion as population increases and human needs go unmet?
Originalists declare the Constitution says what it says. Progressives promote flexible constitutional interpretations, because the formative document says what it means.
Want to rally enthusiasm for your cause? Appeal to the Constitution and sound as if you are defending its original meaning.
House Speaker John Boehner roused constitutional loyalists at a summer 2010 Tea Party rally in Ohio. The Speaker saw red, matching his perpetual ruddy complexion. He opposed tampering with the Constitution, which allows grasping government to grow.
“This is my copy of the Constitution,” thundered Boehner, as he held up a pocket-sized version. “And I’m going to stand here with the Founding Fathers, who wrote in the preamble, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’”
Representative Boehner didn’t quote the Constitution’s Preamble. He confused it with Jefferson’s second sentence in the Declaration of Independence. Just a silly error, OK?
Susceptible to repeating Boehner’s blunder, Americans need to observe Constitution Day on Sept. 17, commemorating its 1787 signing in Philadelphia.
Verbal barbs about the Constitution’s true meaning are old as the Christian Church’s beginning. The Apostle Peter regarded Christianity as a branch of Judaism. Consequently, he wanted every Christian to toe the line on Jewish dietary and ritual laws.
The Apostle Paul, however, saw Christianity as having Hebrew roots but stretching beyond the mother faith. Adjusting ancient dietary and ritual law to the new religion Jesus inspired, Paul wanted faith to keep up with the times and appeal to Gentiles.
Originalist Peter and progressive Paul came to blows.
“When Peter arrived in the city of Antioch,” writes Paul, “I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (Galatians 2:11).
Isn’t this the constitutional debate dressed in religious garb? Originalists claim the Bible and Constitution must be accepted literally. Progressives, dealing with holy writ and America’s constitutional scripture, say we must take both seriously but adapt meaning as our nation evolves.
Listen to Ben Franklin, Originalists and Progressives. After the final draft of the Constitution was read on Monday afternoon, Sept. 17, 42 delegates were present, although 55 had sporadically attended the convention. Eighty-one-year-old Franklin slowly rose from his chair but lacked fire in the belly to make another speech. He lent patriot James Wilson his script, who became Franklin’s mouthpiece.
Franklin addressed his remarks to George Washington, presiding over the convention.
“Mr. President,” he began, “I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them.”
He admitted the document wasn’t perfect or heavenly inspired. Nor did he believe, because of diverse opinion about the role of government in citizens’ lives, that another group could have done a better job.
Franklin’s pen offered a persuasive plea, “Thus, I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.”
Franklin’s back-handed compliment endorsed the Constitution as a faulty human effort, which needed refining to meet emerging national needs. Why can’t more Americans concur with Franklin’s intent rather than fighting to freeze the Constitution in an 18th century time warp?
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.