Thieving Thursday: The US Constitution

>> Thursday, July 9, 2009

Given how much give and take on this topic there was in the comments, I don't think I'm violating anything by keeping up on this week's theme. I talked about "sacred texts" and explained how I feel about their authorship and the caveats I recommend on their applicability to here and now.

But, I contend, religious texts are not the only one's treated like holy relics. Take, for instances, one of the most venerated documents here in the United States. No, I don't mean the formula for Coca-Cola, though there are days you'd think it watching the news. I mean the Constitution of the United States of America, effectively the document that created this nation. Effectively, our charter.

Now, as a general rule, I eschew politics, though not as much as I thought I would. Part of the reason I've been more vocal than before, I think, have been the events for the past couple of decades, the extremes of vitriol one either side with extremists trying to shout each other down, both wrapped in the flag and the Constitution while arguing opposite points, and partly because I feel there is a potential for improvement right now - and I haven't felt that in a while. I'm not saying that because Obama is in office, but because I feel like people who felt like I did, who were tired of the backbiting and nastiness and hatred, want to move on from that and get to work fixing what's broken. I feel (though I'm sure there are those that disagree) that Obama's election was a symptom of that. But that's not what this post is about.

This post is about the tendency of some, whether defending or criticizing change, to quote what our forefathers would have wanted as if those forefathers had just stepped out to the john or they'd have spoken up for themselves. Or to hold up the Constitution and those who wrote it as if they were so sagacious, so knowledgeable, so far-seeing, that questioning the applicability of their requirements, their intents, their absolute solidarity today appears sacrilegious.

But, in my opinion, the limitations I've described regarding the ancient holy relics applies, to both a greater and lesser degree, to documents like the Constitution and those that authored it. Greater, because this was no work honed and filtered over centuries so that only the "best" bits remain (nor do most ascribe it as divinely inspired) and lesser because the culture and society of these forefathers is much closer to today's culture than that in the ancient texts. Much further from today than many appreciate, I think, but certainly less so than the ancient Hebrews or the early Islam.

But those are matters of degree. Our founding fathers were men, influenced by their recent war, their recent attempts at confederacy in shambles, with drastic differences in ideology that only became more pronounced as the common enemy (the British) faded from immediate memory. They were also products of a fairly enlightened society (same British) with leftover notions from their culture about noblesse oblige and what was required among gentlemen. Hand in glove with that notion was the implicit understanding that "men" and "people" was largely intended to mean "white men of property." It was a product of their time that the same man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and this quintessential line: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," was comfortable in his role as plantation owner and slave owner.

That isn't to say the document isn't amazing and farseeing or that the men weren't great. There are some fantastic and ground-breaking provisions, particularly in the Bill of Rights, provisions that set the tone for future improvements. One needn't think less of someone for being a product of his or her time nor sneer at an accomplishment even if adjustments are required over time. But I don't think we do ourselves a favor for thinking it more than it was - a political compromise using the best judgement of people who were intelligent, wanted the best for the future, but had a limited outlook.

Our love and admiration of the document has the potential for limiting us as well. Even the way we regard the amendments after that first set should tell us something. We talk about "the Constitution giving Blacks the right to vote" instead of seeing it as no longer restricting a segment of the population from enjoying the rights they should always have had (as a right, according to what Jefferson wrote and many signed, is inherent).

More tomorrow.


  • Shakespeare

    I suggest reading LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME... for it covers much of the myth-making within the American History mystique. Very informative book dealing with how history texts modify American history to make it less unpalatable.

    And we thought it was the Russians who did that.

  • Roy

    You can thank Rhode Island for the Bill of Rights! Our delegation to the Constitutional Congress wouldn't sign on to the document and the union it created unless it included a declaration of the basic rights of the constituents of that union. Heh, heh! that's why RI was the last of the original 13 states to sign on. Hey, what do you expect? We have a big golden statue on the dome of our statehouse called "The Independent Man"; RI has always been big on standing alone to make a point.

  • Stephanie B

    Shakespeare, I don't think there's a history written anywhere that is devoid of slant and skewed perspective. Not only am I certain that's included in our history, I don't think it's stopped, even for very recent history.

    OK, history class is a ways back, Roy, but, Rhode Island was one of the first colonies that mandated separation of church and state, wasn't it? Religious persecution was a common theme for many colonies, but not all were willing to forgo it themselves. The way I recall Rhode Island (and Pennsylvania) were at least two that did.

    Let me know if I'm wrong.

  • The Mother

    Reminds me of an old SNL sketch, wherein the founding fathers come back and hold a press conference because they're unhappy with the way things are going.

    And they get hammered with questions about fathering children by their slaves and other misdeeds which were not, exactly, misdeeds at the time.

    Whenever we look BACK, we must remember that the sensibilities of the old days were different from ours. It doesn't make them right, of course, by modern eyes, but morality EVOLVES, as man evolves.

    Certainly, they got a lot of things right. Like separation of church and state, a brand new idea 200+ years ago. And one the religious folks STILL don't get.

  • Roy

    Steph, freedom of conscience was indeed written into the 1663 colonial charter, as Roger Williams's Providence settlement and the settlements of Portsmouth and Newport on Aquidneck Island had become a refuge for people escaping the Puritan dictatorship in Massachusetts, mostly dissident Protestants and Quakers. Newport's own John Clarke, who with Williams was one of the founders of the American Baptist movement, wrote that charter. The wording says: "...that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences of opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concerns..." Clarke called such a thing a "lively experiment", and you can read my whole post on that subject here. I posted this on Gather, too, about a year and a half ago or so. You participated in the comment section, and if you remember, I was attacked by two evangelicals who sincerely believed that freedom of conscience was a violation of their right to practice Christianity according to their own teachings. You really have to wonder at how some people's minds work!

  • Stephanie B

    I thought I remembered that, Roy. Good to know my brain hasn't quite evaporated.

    The Mother, I'm often amazed at the assurity some people take when discussing what someone in the past "meant" by what they wrote. I know there are people arrogant to think they can discern the inner workings of someone's mind through their writing, but I'm skeptical of their accuracy.

    In my experience, it's almost always someone who want to press a point that can really go many different ways. Kinda what I'm going to write about today.

  • Aron Sora

    @Stephanie B

    "I was attacked by two evangelicals who sincerely believed that freedom of conscience was a violation of their right to practice Christianity according to their own teachings. You really have to wonder at how some people's minds work!"

    Were they robots? Are they uncomfortable with Christianity? This has to be the mind in fear, I can't believe this happen.

  • Stephanie B

    Aron, it does happen. But I will also say it happened to me, at least, far more when I was younger. I haven't been accosted by the zealous righteous in some time.

    Perhaps it's my pentagram.

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