A lot of people are arguing about the meaning and the use of the Constitution of the United States.
When the new Congress began, a group of Republicans decided to read an edited version (one that didn’t include the part about slaves being three-fifths of a person).
There are those we might call “strict constructionists” or “originalists” who demand that we read it and apply it exactly as it was understood in 1788.
Now, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since 1788. Although we celebrate the birth of the nation on July 4, 1776, we didn’t really become a nation until 1788 when the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation.
Before that, we were a loose “confederation” not much different from the European Union. The Constitution changed all of that.
Many of the “strict constructionists” have been arguing of late that the purpose of the Constitution was to limit the federal government. As Richard Stengel writes in an excellent and timely article in Time, this isn’t exactly true:
“Nor are we in danger of flipping the Constitution on its head, as some of the Tea Party faithful contend. Their view of the founding documents was pretty well summarized by Texas Congressman Ron Paul back in 2008: ‘The Constitution was written explicitly for one purpose – to restrain the federal government.’ Well, not exactly. In fact, the framers did the precise opposite. They strengthened the center and weakened the states. The states had extraordinary power under the Articles of Confederation. Most of them had their own navies and their own currencies. The truth is the Constitution massively strengthened the central government of the U.S. for the simple reason that it established one where none had existed before.”
Indeed, if the founders had wanted a really limited, decentralized government, they could have stayed with the Articles of Confederation, but that didn’t work, so they created a federal government.
Yes, it does limit some powers, and it makes sure that authority is shared between legislative, judicial and executive branches, but as Stengel notes, the Constitution actually strengthens the center and weakens the authority of the states.
I have argued before, and I will argue again, that the “strict constructionist” line is a lot like the “literalist” reading of Scripture. It allows for no interpretation.
If the text of the Constitution (like Scripture) is to speak to us today, it has to be interpreted in light of the world in which we live now.
As Stengel notes, the founders knew nothing about health insurance or predator drones, so how can a strict reading apply to such things?
Thus, if this wonderful document, which is neither inerrant nor infallible, is to have any value for our day, then we must allow it to be read, interpreted and applied with a degree of flexibility.
Or, to paraphrase Jesus: The Constitution was made for human beings, not human beings made for the Constitution. It is a human document and needs to be read as such.
I really doubt that if James Madison were alive today, he would want us to read and apply it in the same way as in the late18th century. With that in mind, let us have a vigorous conversation about the purpose of this document.
Bob Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Mich. He blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.
Bob Cornwall is Senior Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Michigan.