Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Happy Constitution Day, America!

Today, 17 September 2007, is the 220th anniversary of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.  I would be the last to consider it a perfect document (no human document is). The original, un-amended Constitution counted African-Americans as 3/4 of a human being for census purposes and allowed slavery.  Voting was originally restricted to white males with property.  U.S. Senators were originally elected by the state legislatures, rather than by direct franchise.

I’d still like to add several amendments: an Equal Rights Amendment that disallows discrimination on the basis of gender; an amendment to abolish the death penalty; an amendment abolishing the Electoral College and electing the U.S. President by direct franchise (popular vote) and one allowing a vote of no confidence that could force an early election; an amendment guaranteeing (civil) marriage to same-sex couples.  Others doubtless would have other amendments.

Still, at a time when Habeas corpus is being dismantled; when torture is public policy; when the president ALONE (with no review)can call someone an “enemy combatant” and suddenly they can be held indefinitely without trial; when citizens can be spied upon with impunity; when the attitude toward the Constitution is that it is an inconvenience to be avoided, rather than the legal protection of our liberties; –in such an era, I feel incredibly protective toward the U.S. Constitution. 

A recent poll, sadly, found that more Americans could name 2 or more Simpsons’ characters than could name more than 1 of the 5 freedoms protected by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. (For your review, they are freedom of religion and church-state separation; freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom of assembly; the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.)

Sure, it’s a flawed human document–which is why it’s ability to be amended is important. It has proven remarkably flexible as it has guided this nation from an 18th C. rural beginning to a postmodern, multicultural era.  I am protective of this document and embarrassed at how disdainfully it is treated both by the current administration and by citizens who would rather be consumers of bread and circuses.  I hope respect for constitutional law will be reinvigorated. 

Civil governments of all kinds are, at best, penultimate goods–not the Rule of God.  But a constitutional democracy with checks and balances and protection of human rights is a penultimate GOOD, not bad.  The last 7 years, as I have been horrified at the direction of my nation, I have both realized more and more that a Christian’s ultimate loyalty can never be to any nation-state or civil arrangement, and simultaneously desired the vigorous defense and renewal of the American experiment in constitutional law.  As flawed documents go, this one ain’t bad.


September 17, 2007 - Posted by | U.S. politics


  1. The Constitution is dandy (so far as such documents go). What isn’t is the 2004 legislation, introduced by West Virginia’s Senator Byrd, requiring any college or university receiving federal funding (that is, almost all of ’em) to offer an “instructional program” on the Constitution on or around Constitution Day.

    Comment by Kerry | September 18, 2007

  2. Kerry, I was in favor of that legislation. All this week, I am attending events at local colleges that are the result of Sen. Byrd’s bill. It has really raised local awareness about the Constitution. What do you find objectionable about that?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 18, 2007

  3. Goodness, Michael, we seem to agree on very little these days! I find nothing objectionable at all to raising local awareness about the Constitution. How could I possibly?

    What I do object to is the federal government holding a stick over academia’s head: “If you don’t devote special programs to talking about the Constitution, your federal funding is in jeopardy.” It’s not as nefarious, but it’s cut from the same cloth, as the government’s insistence that federal funding is also in jeopardy if military recruiters aren’t allowed on campuses. It’s bullying.

    Nor is it simple enough for colleges or universities to say: okay, then, we won’t accept any more federal monies. Because that means that fewer needy students are accepted, and individual research faculty grants are penalized.

    Comment by Kerry | September 19, 2007

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