Monday, June 27, 2011

The Purpose of the Constitution

There are a lot of people arguing about the meaning and the use of the Constitution of the United States.  When the new Congress began a group of Republicans decided to read an edited version (one that didn't include the part about slaves being 3/5ths of a person).   There are those who we might call strict constructionists or originalists who demand that we read it and apply it exactly as it was understood in 1788.  Now, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since 1788 was enacted creating the United States of America.  Although we celebrate the birth of the nation on July 4th, we didn't really become a nation until 1788 when the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation.  Before that we were a loose "confederation" not much different from the European Union.  But the Constitution changed all of that.

Many of the "strict constructionists" have been arguing of late that the purpose of the Constitution was to limit the Federal Government.  As Richard Stengel writes in an excellent and timely article in Time, this isn't exactly true:
 Nor are we in danger of flipping the Constitution on its head, as some of the Tea Party faithful contend. Their view of the founding documents was pretty well summarized by Texas Congressman Ron Paul back in 2008: "The Constitution was written explicitly for one purpose — to restrain the federal government." Well, not exactly. In fact, the framers did the precise opposite. They strengthened the center and weakened the states. The states had extraordinary power under the Articles of Confederation. Most of them had their own navies and their own currencies. The truth is, the Constitution massively strengthened the central government of the U.S. for the simple reason that it established one where none had existed before.

Indeed, if the Founders had wanted a really limited, decentralized government they could have stayed with the Articles of Confederation, but that didn't work, so they created a Federal Government.  Yes, it does limit some powers, and makes sure that authority is shared between Congress, Judiciary, and Executive, but as Stengel notes, the Constitution actually strengthens the center and weakens the authority of the states.  

 I have argued before and I will argue again -- the "strict constructionist" line is a lot like the "literalist" reading of Scripture.  It allows for no interpretation, but if the text of the Constitution (like Scripture) is to speak to today, it has to be interpreted in light of the world in which we live now.  As Stengel notes, the Founders new nothing about health insurance or predator drones, so how can a strict reading apply to such things?  Thus, if this wonderful document, which is neither inerrant nor infallible, is to have any value for our day, then we must allow it to be read, interpreted, and applied with a degree of flexibility.  

Or, to paraphrase Jesus -- the Constitution was made for human beings, not human beings made for the Constitution.  It is a human document and needs to be read as such.  I really doubt that if James Madison were alive today, he would want us to read and apply it in the same way as in the late18th century!  With that in mind, let us have a vigorous conversation about what the purpose of this document!

5 comments:

Gary said...

What is it that you want the federal government to do that you think a literal reading of the Constitution prevents?

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

It's not a matter of what I want it to do, but rather understand its purpose -- and to understand its purpose means letting it speak beyond what 18th century Euro-Americans understood about the world.

John said...

The polity of the United States has changed. What the government can do, what we expect from the government, what people in power can do and the clever ways and means people have designed to effectuate corruption and abuse have become more and more complex.

The Constitution as an instrument of design has to be flexible, adaptable to the changes, so that it continues to be meaningful, and so that our national experiment can survive.

The Constitution was designed by a group of elite, propertied, white men, most of whom were slaveholders. It was not perfect, even for the times it was designed in. Even as it was being voted on its many flaws were immediately obvious thus the first ten amendments were passed at the same time.

The Framers were aware that the document was human in origin, and that it was an experiment which would have to be adjusted and refined as new and unanticipated issues developed.

It was not prescribed by God, not chiseled on stone tablets, not dictated to a Prophet in a cave, not etched on Golden Plates. It is just a really good plan which some very bright men hatched in secret.

So the original intent of the Framers, while sometimes helpful, is really not all that important. They (the Framers) would be the first to argue for continuous review and adjustment over times.

This document, though drafted by another generation of Americans, belongs to us, this generation of Americans. If we are going to honor the Framers and the document, we must treat the document with honor and due regard for its ultimate purposes, but we should see it as a means to better government, and not as a sacred an unalterable relic.

David said...

...is to make a more perfect union.

If we're not getting along well, we're not doing it right.

Gary said...

Remember, if Americans want to change the Constitution, there is the amendment process. That's the way the founders provided for changing it.