For the first time in U.S. history, the nation’s House of Representatives will begin its new session with a complete oral reading of our country’s Constitution.
I don’t have a clue why this hasn’t happened before, not just in the House but in the Senate as well since proceeding with the business of both chambers without reading the constituting text would be a lot like proceeding with worship and a sermon without reading a biblical text.
And this ritual reading of the country’s founding text at the beginning of a legislative session could have really profound implications this 112th time around since so much is being claimed about what passes constitutional muster on such important items as the health care reform bill passed last year.
But the reading could also prove immensely helpful to the new speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, because he’s had difficulty remembering even the first words of the constitutional text.
At a Tea Party rally back in 2009, the then-minority leader held up a copy of what he said was the Constitution and then began quoting what he thought to be its opening words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…,” which, of course, comes from the Declaration of Independence.
I doubt he’ll make that mistake again this time.
My hope, however, is that in reading the actual opening words of our Constitution, he will pay special attention to all of the functions of government enumerated right there at the beginning: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
My guess is that Boehner will have no difficulty fulfilling the requirements of providing for the “common defense” and, according to his own understanding of freedom, securing “the Blessings of Liberty” for the current crop of the founders’ posterity. He’ll probably also do his best to “insure domestic Tranquility.”
But I want to be sure he hears clearly those governmental requirements to “establish Justice” and to “promote the general Welfare,” and then remembers those requirements when he and his colleagues in the Congress take up such matters as health care for all, and financial regulation and unemployment insurance, and environmental standards and education policy.
Then, and only then, would it be entirely appropriate for Boehner and his legislative colleagues to go back to the words of the Declaration of Independence about equality and have them apply to all the functions of government that the Constitution authorizes.
The reading of the Constitution could thereby be something other than a ritualistic gesture serving a grandstanding political purpose. It could be, rather, a reminder of the broad and demanding responsibilities of our public officials.
More than that: it could be a reminder to “we the people” of what we must expect of those folks we’ve elected to govern on our behalf.
Think of it this way: When Jesus appeared in the wilderness to ask John to baptize him, and after John had responded by telling Jesus that there ought to be a role reversal – that it was Jesus who should be baptizing John – Jesus says he must indeed be baptized in order to fulfill what God requires.
This fulfilling of the baptismal requirements wasn’t simply complying with a ritual act – a going-through-the-motions that earlier John had accused the Pharisees and Sadducees of doing when they had come to be baptized – but a visible sign of one’s religious and moral readiness to be righteous in all the ways God expected of one who was to be declared divinely favored.
Oh, if only the ritualistic reading of the Constitution by Boehner and his congressional colleagues would be a visible (and audible) sign of their moral and political commitment to be faithful to all the ways the Constitution requires of American government and its leaders!
Oh, if only “we the people,” when witnessing the reading of the Constitution by our political leaders, or pondering it on our own, would make a moral and political commitment to demand that those leaders fulfill all of their constitutional requirements – and more: that we ourselves actively fulfill those requirements by our own involvement in the practice of democracy!
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.