On Constitutional Worship and Historical Trends

I have a friend — he and I go back over a decade — who, in the past two years, has turned into a rabid right-winger.

He’s always been out there on the right, but ever since Obama was elected, he’s gone off the deep end. Obama is a socialist, a Marxist, a totalitarian fascist, a closet atheist, an insincere Christian. Obama is militarily weak, a denier of American exceptionalism, in the pocket of foreign interests.

I wonder, honestly, what planet my friend is on. I wonder what news he’s reading and watching and hearing. I wonder if he’s getting anything that hasn’t come through the Fox News filter.

I suspect not.

One frequent refrain is that the Obama is usurping the Constitution, that nothing he has done meets with Constitutional muster. It’s a frequent refrain on the right, that the Constitution works best when it does only what the Founding Fathers intended when they wrote it, only when we treat it like a holy writ.

The Constitution, however, is not the Bible or the Qu’ran or the Upanishads or the Elder Eddas. The Constitution is a framework, a guideline, and treating it like it belongs in a locked box will do society a great deal of damage.

If the meaning of the Constitution does not evolve, then the Air Force is an extra-constitutional organization and should be folded back into the Army and the Navy.

If the meaning of the Constitution does not evolve, then Congressional districts are non-Constitutional; states get their apportionment of Representatives, true, but the Constitution doesn’t actually specify how Representatives are to be elected in the individual states.

If the application of the Constitution doesn’t evolve, then the equal protection of rights enshrined in the 14th Amendment applies, as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said last week, only to freed slaves and not to women, immigrants, and minorities and other historically oppressed groups.

The Constitution is not a holy writ to be frozen in amber. Christians froze the Bible in amber for a millennia and a half; the Protestant Reformation took a moribund religion and made it vibrant again. Islams hold that the Qu’ran is unchanging in its language and its meaning; some sociologists believe that Islamic terrorism and the Taliban can be traced back to the flowering of the West and the cultural decline of Islam by comparison because Islam could no longer adapt.

The United States Constitution has survived as long as it has because our political leaders in all three branches of government wisely understood that its role was that of a guide or a blueprint. It showed the framework for the house of government, but it wasn’t the whole house. The blueprint needs occasional work — that’s why we have an amendment process — and, by and large, the things society needs its government to do can fit within the blueprint.

But this move toward treating the Constitution like a secular equivalent to the Qu’ran — unchanging and unchangeable from what it meant centuries ago — treats the skeletal framework of the federal government as the entirety of government. Only, government won’t work like that. There are too many things that citizens expect their government to do that the Founders, centuries ago, could never have even imagined. The Constitution was written in a different time, in a different society, and wanting to back the clock to an earlier time makes society backward-looking and fearful for the future.

This “worship,” for want of a better word, of the Constitution has no good ending. We’ve seen it happen historically with fundamentalist religious groups; they become intolerant, close-minded, and ultimately violent as more forward-looking cultures and societies pass them by, lashing out because they are mired in the past, facing a future they no longer comprehend.

The Constitution is not the Qu’ran.

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