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second amendment, a constitution designed to be a document of liberation instead imprisons the US, shackling it to an outdated rule that makes easy the murder of schoolchildren.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.