Viewpoint: Are Americans too in love with the Constitution?

It’s safe to say that a lot of outsiders don’t really get the United States. But a riveting commentary in The Guardian tries to teach them — or us; it’s not really clear which.

Jonathan Freedland suggests the Constitution is more of our bible than the Bible, and that we treat the forefathers as religious deities.

It is indeed a sacred text. Despite, or perhaps because, the US is a country animated by faith, the “founding fathers” are treated as deities, their every word analysed as if it contained gospel truth. Any new idea or policy proposal, no matter how worthy on its own merits, must be proven compatible with what those long-dead politicians of the late 18th century set down – otherwise it’s unconstitutional and can be thrown out by the supreme court, the high priesthood selected to interpret what the great prophets of Philadelphia intended.

I don’t mock America’s awe for its constitution. On the contrary, I regard that text as the most powerful statement of democratic principle – starting with its declaration that “we the people” are sovereign – and human rights ever written. Its system of checks and balances is mathematically and beautifully precise in its determination to prevent unfettered, over-centralised power. It represents the unfinished business of England’s own incomplete revolution of 1688. It’s no exaggeration to say that this single document makes the US possible, cohering an immigrant nation with no common bonds of blood or soil around a radical idea.

But when the attachment to that text calcifies into a rigid dogma, danger beckons. Even the best ideals can become warped: note how the first amendment guarantee of free speech has allowed unlimited spending on TV campaign ads by anonymous corporate donors. In the case of the second amendment, a constitution designed to be a document of liberation instead imprisons the US, shackling it to an outdated rule that makes easy the murder of schoolchildren. Polls show a majority of Americans favour greater gun control, but the US constitution stands stubbornly in their way. The scholar Daniel Lazare describes America as “the frozen republic”, chained to decisions taken when the right to bear arms meant the freedom to carry a musket. He wants the US to revamp its constitution, like most of the other countries of the world: “Why must Americans remain slaves to the past?”

Unfortunately, it’s an impossible debate to have without having it under the conclusion that gun control would’ve prevented the Connecticut tragedy. Maybe it would’ve; maybe it wouldn’t have. For the purposes of discussing only the value of the Constitution, perhaps we should focus it on another amendment.

  • Mark Gisleson

    More interesting to me is the mercurial nature of the Right’s support for the Constitution. Those aspects of the Constitution that support their ideology are sacrosanct. The other parts? Best left unmentioned.

    The Founding Fathers get very different treatment. The Right simply rewrites history to make of them what the Right needs them to be. The Founding Fathers were Deists but the Right needs for them to be evangelical Christians just as they need all the pagan trappings of Christmas at the Mall to be all about Christ and Christianity. Facts don’t slow them down as their message transforms every medium.

    You cannot argue with people who pick and choose in ways that always insists they won while everyone else loses.

    There is nothing conservative or historically Republican about today’s Right. Like fascists everywhere, they take the flag and make it into their cape as they proselytize for whatever national texts agree with them while always taking care to identify a scapegoat who is to blame for things not working out.

    We the people, but only some people, and only so long as they toe the Right’s line.

  • georges

    Here is where you went wrong……

    True modern Conservatives are also Deists, as were the Founding Fathers.

    The Right doesn’t need them to be Evangelical Christians. Evangelical Christians needs them to be Evangelical Christians.

    You are confused. Evangelical Christians are leftists, just like modern Liberals, and seek to use Government to force their beliefs on every citizen in the country. Just like Liberals do.

    It doesn’t matter what their beliefs are…..fact is, it is the act of trying to use the government to force ones feelings on everybody that makes a Liberal a Liberal.

    Liberals are all Fascists. It doesn’t matter what they are forcing the People to abide, Christianity or Atheism, or any thing else, it is all Liberal Fascism.

    Modern Conservatism, on the other hand, wants Big Government out of our lives. It’s as simple as that.

    Come out into the light of day. Get rid of those dinosauric ideas. Tis good for the soul.

  • inuit

    “…when the right to bear arms meant the freedom to carry a musket.”

    You can inform the scholar Mr. Lazare that the Second Amendment never meant the freedom to carry a musket. It meant, and still does mean, the freedom of U.S. Citizens to have the same weapons the government has. To prevent the tyranny of Big Government.

    And, Mr. Freedland, the First Amendment is not there to allow unlimited spending on TV campaign ads by corporations and UNIONS. (funny how you Liberals always leave out the Labor Unions when talking about Citizens United).

    No, the First Amendment is there to protect the rights of U.S. citizens to speak out against the Government. To prevent the tyranny of Big Government.

    It really is simple, when you have an objective (and able) mind.

  • Philip Benson

    I don’t believe people are too in love with the preamble, which anything added to, deleted from or interpreted from the constitution after it should report.

  • Ben B

    The 2nd Amendment is just that, a change to the Constitution, not originally including. Now it is outdated, like prohibition. We have a professional army; the US no longer needs an armed militia for the protection of the country from the Red Coats or Native Americans. We have institutions that do this job for us, and have done a great job of it over the last 150 years. Too many people focus on the first phrases in the Bill of Rights and not the entire Amendments to understand their intended purpose. I value our Constitution, but the genius of the founding father was to make it a living document to be altered to remain relevant for a changing country and its people.

  • inuit

    So, Ben B, I assume you are working hard to amend the Constitution by repealing the 2nd Amendment.

    Good luck with that.

    Do you have about 200 years ahead of you? That you want to waste?

  • Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin)

    Since the Newtown shooting, I’ve been getting criticism from friends and acquaintances for advocating an outright repeal of the Second Amendment.

    It probably is a windmill to tilt at, but I sincerely think it does more harm than good in a modern society.

  • Bob Collins

    I’ve seen the “to prevent the tyranny of big government” reference several times this week w.r.t. the Second Amendment. I’m curious, though, under what scenarios that plays out and what it looks like. Are we talking a war against our government and, if so, who declares it? What does it look like? Who defines what constitutes ‘tyranny’, because from what I can tell on some talk shows, some people feel we’re already there. So do they have legitimate license to begin shooting? At whom?

  • Jack Bode

    I agree, Bob, in order to address this issue we should probably stay away from the second amendment.

    Since the whole Bill of Rights seem to be under attack, let’s talk about another Constitutional guarantee that really needs to change – Freedom of the Press.

    Millions of conservatives are insulted and demeaned daily in this country by the main stream media. It has become such a one-sided situation that only drastic measures will remedy the problem.

    Consequently, I propose that the Freedom of the Press clause be replaced by the Anti-Bully amendment. That way if I’m offended by the media I can go to Court.

  • Jay DePonty

    I just don’t get how any true American would trust the corrupt in this government with taking more power from the people?