Back to the Constitution?

There’s a popular movement among libertarians – I mean republicans – encouraging us to go back to the constitution as the recipe for fixing government. The idea is that, government should not be involved in anything not specifically outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

While the notion has surface appeal, a little investigation shows it’s one of the dumbest ideas around.

The most vocal proponents of Constitutional Fundamentalism have a habit of stating that anything not explicitly stated in the document is unconstitutional. The problem here, is one would have to presume the framers were capable of forecasting every conceiveble issue that might concern our government. There are speakers touring the country lecturing the locals (presumably too ignorant to read the Constitution themselves)  that agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Education aren’t mentioned per se, and therefore are unconstitutional.

Following this logic, NASA, the air force, social security, medicare, the National Science Foundation, FBI and many other programs are also unconstitutional. The idea that our forefathers sought to restrict government so severely as to constrain quality of life is ludicrous. These were fairly bright men; they didn’t write in crayon. They wanted a government that could enhance quality of life, not exclude it from doing so.

Another anachronistic notion is that, because God is referenced in the constitution, the framers intended a Christian state. Now, many authors have shared (convincingly) the historical context verifying our forefathers’ preference for separation of church and state, but here’s a different thought. The proponents of this idea must think the framers were idiots, incapable of stating their preferences. Somehow, the framers lost sight of the fact they were writing a document constituting our national framework. They probably wrote some good stuff and went to lunch. When they came back, they were going to say we would have a Christian nation, but they were tired so they just doodled in the margins until the bell rang. Or maybe they forgot Jesus’ name and just wrote ‘God’ next to something so people would think they were serious. Maybe, but I doubt it. I think they did a grand job of stating their ideals and preferences and the absence of a state religion was intentional. Alas, since the did not write there shall be no state religion(s) dominionists, libertarians, conspiracy theorists, and illiterates everywhere will impute the desire for an American theocracy. Interestingly, many theologists suggest our Christian God is the same one the Jews worship, which is also the God of Islam. The divergence stems from identification with Jesus, Moses, or Muhammad. Since none of them are mentioned, any of these religions could be implied by the same logic. Its bad logic in all cases.

The interpretation of the constitution as a limiting document is surprising coming from people with a legal background. Michelle Bachmann, for example, has a law degree. Most attorneys are familiar with the words “including, but not limited to…” which are common to legal documents where the authors want caveats to be binding beyond what they can envision in the moment. It allows a clause to be expansive, covering future circumstances that are not clear today.

And there’s the rub. Either the constitution is a broad document – including but not limited to our experience thus far – with applications beyond the day of writing, or it is not.  Including and limited to what we can conceive of, but no further… is little more than a laundry list – an inventory of what the government can and cannot do, and limited by the experience of those who penned it. And, while a discussion about the role of government is in order, a discussion of the verity of the constitution should not be.

This reductionist approach to the government, rationalized by diminishing the constitution in a fundamentalist way, is the province small minds. Those willing to think for a few moments will surely dismiss it. Those running for office on this platform should be run out of town.


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