January 6 2011

Is the Constitution Sacred?

Charlotte Hays

The reading aloud of the U.S. Constitution was an appropriate way to begin the 112th Congress.

Not everybody was pleased by the reading. Some Democrats and pundits were non-plused. David Corn's charge that Constitution is being "weaponized" by the GOP was a typical expression of anger. Alana Goodman of Commentary's Contentions blog, who applauds the "touching gesture," refers to the "increasingly creative objections from liberals" to the reading.

One of the controversies that erupted before the reading was over whether the passages that have been amended should be read aloud-since, after all, these sections are no longer the law of the land, the Republicans opted to omit them. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Democrat from Illinois, was not pleased:

"I want to be very clear in reading this sacred document," said Jackson, who prefers the version with amendments at the end. "Given the struggle of African Americans and the struggle of women to create a more perfect document, we want to hear those elements of the Constitution that have been didacted. They are no less serious a part of our struggle and many of us don't want that to be lost."

In other words, the Constitution doesn't make the U.S. look nearly bad enough to satisfy a grievance-mongerer like Mr. Jackson.  Jackson and others who share his perspective see a U.S. rooted in slavery rather than the U.S. as the nation that fought a great war to abolish a practice that went back to the dawn of history. Take your pick.

Writing in Salon, Michael Lind has a particularly annoying piece entitled "Let's Stop Pretending that the Constitution is Sacred."  Lind seems to regard the Constitution as overrated and today's reading as a sop to the Tea Party:  

[Gestures such as reading the Constitution aloud] are certain to please the conservatives of the Tea Party movement who are the ascendant force in Republican primary elections. But Tea Party constitutionalism represents a deeply flawed understanding of America's founding, which ought to be based on the revolutionary idea of the power of the sovereign people to make and unmake constitutions of their design, not on superstitious veneration of particular constitutions handed down by wise demigods. ...

But there is more to the constitutional theories of the modern GOP than neo-Confederate ideology. Beginning with the adoption of the federal Constitution, some Americans have sought to promote reverence for this particular Constitution, while others have emphasized the power of the Constitution-making people. Thomas Jefferson thought that laws and constitutions should be updated frequently, while his friend and ally James Madison thought that constitutions and laws should be changed only infrequently in the interest of stability. John Adams thought that the founders of constitutions should be revered, as in ancient Greece and Rome.

I veer towards latter point of view and revere the American Revolution and subsequent Constitution as grounded in ancient and eighteenth century ideals. Sacred? Absolutely, as sacred as a secular document can be. Lind makes America's "revolutionary idea" sound more like the French revolution. But what all the emotion around the mere reading of a founding document shows is that we're headed for a fierce fight over the nature of government, as grounded in our Constitution, and the relevance of the Constitution. 

It's about time.

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