Thursday, September 17, 2009

Happy Constitution Day!

Every September 17 is Constitution Day, when America celebrates the important day—now 222 years ago—when the framers of the Constitution signed the document that has endured (more or less) as the longest-living constitution in the world. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the Chief Executive’s website.

I’ve searched the White House’s website for at least a “hat tip” in honor of today. Instead, I found on the WH site Barack Obama’s full-court press on the health care plan that would further extend the power of the federal government beyond the boundaries set in the Constitution. Appropriate, then, that he has neglected to give lip service to the Constitution because he is too busy campaigning for another unconstitutional power grab that subverts the “supreme law of the land.”

Of course, the blame for unconstitutional government programs must be checked and balanced against the two other branches of government. Congress, particularly this one, is usually all to eager to overleap its delegated powers, especially when it can buy reelection votes. The judiciary, too, has for decades believed its own propaganda and has set itself up as sole interpreters and gatekeepers to the Constitution.

It is easy to sling these accusations around, however, without remember who is ultimately responsible for the safekeeping of the United States Constitution (and those of every state, too). Hint: it is the same body that ratified it. We the People (not the States, not the Framers, and certainly not the Judges). We the People ratified the Constitution and, with the exception of a few amendments, have largely left it intact. It was so good when it was drafted that it needed only a few adjustments along the way.

But along that way We the People have forgotten our role in this Constitution. We are the ultimate “check and balance” on our leaders when they have violated our Constitution and yet we have largely left it up to them to determine when they have violated it. The fox is free in the henhouse and we are occasionally shouting through the chicken wire, reminding it to not eat too many chickens too fast.

It is not time for the federal government to take ownership of America’s automobile manufacturers, financial institutions, and health care system. It is time, rather, for We the People to take ownership of our Constitution again. We cannot expect our elected and appointed leaders to take it seriously when we do not do so ourselves.

How do we take our Constitution seriously? First, we need to read and understand it. (Click on the image to the left, for starters.) Three years after the first “Constitution Day,” James Wilson, signer of the Declaration and the Constitution, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and Law Professor, spoke of the virtues of American character, including the “love of liberty, and the love of law.” Wilson went on:

“But law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.”

Wilson explained that we must know the Constitution before we can expect to love it. So our first job as American citizens is to know our Constitution; the love of the Constitution usually follows.

Second, and just as important, is our duty to pass along what we have learned. The American principles of liberty, law, and religious freedom are largely taught not caught. We must pass along the knowledge of the Constitution and why it was written the way it was to our children and also to our representatives in government. If succeeding generations of pupils and politicians alike inherit only a vague and fuzzy idea of what the Constitution is or says, then we have failed “to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” as the Preamble to the Constitution states.

The Old Testament had a great model for keeping both the king and the kids familiar with the law, one we would do well to adopt in America. Even before the Israelites asked for a king to rule over them, God them grave warnings about the future king’s potential to abuse power and commanded a practice for the king to remember that he is under God and law:

"And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel." (Deut. 17:18-20)

Not only was the king supposed to read the law, but he had to write it out in his own hand! Here in America, a similar presidential Constitution-copying tradition might be just the thing we need for a necessary dose of humility under and fidelity to the law.

Yet earlier in the scriptures God emphasized that His law was not primarily for the study of kings, but was to be understood by the people and passed along to succeeding generations.

"These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates." (Deut. 6:6-9)

These specific commands immediately followed the greatest commandment: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Israelites showed their love for God by their obedience to His commands and by teaching that law of love (and love of law) to their posterity.

Kings and presidents, because they are fallible men, will inevitably abuse their power. When they do, both liberty and law are at risk. James Wilson accurately warned about an attack on either:

"Without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without law, liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness."

If you love America, then learn her law, the United States Constitution. If you love your freedom, then pass that knowledge of the Constitution along to your leaders and hold them accountable. If you love your children, then pass that knowledge and love along to them so they may enjoy the law and liberty you were given.

Founding Father John Adams wrote these words to you back in 1777:

"Posterity! you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not I shall repent in heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.”

So on this Constitution Day, get to know your Constitution! And then pass it on.

Impossible Dream:

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