Everyone's Constitution

At the end of the most recent debate among the seven Republicans vying for their party’s nomination to be President, moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN asked each of them what they would bring to the White House should they become president.

More bedrooms for his seven children, answered Rick Santorum. A bust of Winston Churchill, answered Mitt Romney. His beautiful wife, answered Rick Perry. His motorcycle, said Jon Huntsman.

When it was Michele Bachmann’s turn, she stoked her reputation as the darling of the Tea Party movement by proudly stating that she’d bring the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. “And that’s it,” she concluded.

Now, let’s put aside for a moment the fact that the Bill of Rights is the Constitution. Let’s give her the benefit of doubt and assume that she meant the whole Constitution, the one with 27 amendments, not just the first ten. (Whenever we deal with Michele Bachmann, it is, alas, always necessary to give her a generous dose of the benefit of doubt.)

Even if her syntax was messy, her message was clear: She wants to be the standard bearer of the Constitution in today’s political arena. And from what is known of her beliefs, she views the Constitution as a symbol of very limited government when it comes to things like taxation, health care, and the like. And she certainly has an expansive view of constitutional tolerance of religious expression, given the way her fervent and outspoken Christian evangelical beliefs undergird so much of her political philosophy.

As we gear up for another presidential campaign — the start of which seems to get earlier and earlier in each election cycle — it’s become clear that Bachmann and her Tea Party colleagues have appropriated their interpretation of the Constitution for their cause.

But it’s important to remember that’s not the only interpretation. It is a pliable document, significant for what it doesn’t mention (God, slavery) as much as for what it does. That is by design. There is an innate tension in the opening clauses of the First Amendment between the promised freedom of religion and from religion; a centuries-old argument about where a comma belongs in the Second Amendment; an amendment (the 21st) which repeals another amendment (the 18th) to allow liquor to once again flow freely; and so on. Just because an amendment to the Constitution hasn’t been ratified since 1992 doesn’t mean the document’s words are immutable.

Indeed, the very amendment process detailed in Article V supports a notion contrary to Bachmanns’ — that the limited government created in 1787 was expected to be changed, expanded, reformed.

Not too long ago, it was liberals who were urging the public to turn back to constitutional values, but then the context hinged on President George W. Bush’s expansive war powers and the reach of the Patriot Act. No doubt the context will shift again.

This is the genius of this document. Two-hundred and twenty-four years after 39 members of the Constitutional Convention, meeting in Philadelphia, affixed their names to a document that they hoped would form the basis for a brave experiment in self-governance, their legacy is still a work in progress. Constitution Day is September 17. It’s not a national holiday. It should be. And it should be celebrated with the understanding that the document belongs not to a single candidate, party or ideology, but now — thanks to the way it has been amended — to everyone.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Everyone's Constitution

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