I salute the Republicans of the 112th Congress for their initiative to restore the U.S. Constitution to its legitimate place of prominence in our public discourse.
Reading it aloud at Congress’s opening session and requiring members to cite Constitutional authority when introducing new legislation are great ideas.
It will help highlight that the real debate is about the underlying defining principles of our nation that the constitution exists to protect.
Democrats mocking these gestures show their disdain for those underlying principles. When Congressman Henry Waxman says “Whether it’s constitutional or not is going to be whether the Supreme Court says it is,” it’s like my saying that whether or not I steal from my neighbor depends on my calculation of whether or not I’ll get caught.
The constitution is our operating manual defining the functions and bounds of our federal government. It was meticulously designed by our founders so that we would have government consistent with the values and principles of our nation.
It’s in those values and principles where our “eternal truths” lie. Not in the constitution constructed to secure them. If the drafters didn’t see it this way, they wouldn’t have provided provisions to amend and change it.
It’s in our increasingly tenuous sense of what the truths are that precede the constitution, or the questioning by some if indeed there are any eternal truths, where our problems lie.
The purpose of government, stated in the Declaration of Independence, is to “secure” our “Rights”, including those of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
But how can we understand and use our constitution if we can’t agree on what “life” is or what “liberty” is?
Consider one of the most repugnant decisions to ever emerge from the U.S. Supreme Court – the Dred Scott decision.
The decision relegated blacks to subhuman status and precluded the possibility that they could be considered US citizens protected by the constitution.
The issue was not whether the constitution was taken seriously. The issue was how prevailing values dictated understanding of who people and citizens are. And so, per our Supreme Court in 1857, a class of human beings in our country was relegated to chattel.
The Roe v Wade decision in 1973, which gave open license to kill our unborn children, stemmed not from indifference to the constitution, but from how we choose to relate to and define what life is – or the extent to which we even care.
Recently a federal judge in California overturned as unconstitutional an initiative passed by California voters to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Lawyers who supported the suit to overturn the initiative included conservative and libertarian lawyers who would claim to support our constitution as constructed by our founders. What they don’t support is an understanding of the definition of marriage being between a man and a woman as a pre-existing truth that the state should be free to codify in its constitution.
Supposedly among the truths that our constitution secures is our right to our private property.
But what can that possibly mean if the federal government can define what health insurance is and force under law every American citizen to buy it?
It is a strange understanding of “life” and “liberty” that will allow this to occur. If government can dictate to this extent how I live and what I do, I begin to feel like they own me. I start feeling like Dred Scott must have felt.
So, yes, let’s put the spotlight back on our constitution. But let’s not lose perspective that our understanding and interpretation of it will be just as good as our agreement on and understanding and appreciation of the underlying values it’s there to secure and protect.