Monday, 27 September 2010

Worshipping the constitution

In this week's Economist there is a fascinating article about the USA's obsession with their constitution. The tea-party movement is the latest group to hijack their own understanding of what the constitution means for their own ends. Lexington provokes a passionate debate on the Economist's blog by statements such as 'there is something infantile in the belief of the constitution-worshippers that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century'.
This is proof, if needed, of history's ever-present relevance to today's political debate.


  1. It’s ironic that a document so much the result of pragmatism and compromise is being used to justify an inflexible ideological approach to politics. The constitution’s ‘first principles’ were devised long before the end of slavery, before women could vote and before the Civil Rights Act. Do people really support such out-dated views? As for the Tea Party’s ‘radical ideas’ triumphed by Michelle Bachmann, these seem to be missing in their policies. Sarah Palin, ‘the Tea Party’s avatar’, opposes the Equal Rights Amendment. The constitution was never intended to remain the same forever; there is an amendment process for a reason and Jefferson himself supported the Bill of Rights – he didn’t mean for it to go unchallenged or unchanged. The Framers understood the complexities of running a nation and therefore left much of it flexible. It’s meant to adapt.
    I would agree that the view that the constitution alone can solve modern political problems is ‘infantile’ and avoiding debate on the constitution is hardly going to help matters. However, this should not eclipse the bold notions of the constitution, a pragmatic and progressive document uniting thirteen states into one nation. Perhaps in a country divided by partisanship where forward-thinking is too often stifled by conservatism, America should think of the aims of their beloved constitution, rather than the four and a half thousand words which codify it.

  2. "Perhaps in a country divided by partisanship where forward-thinking is too often stifled by conservatism, America should think of the aims of their beloved constitution, rather than the four and a half thousand words which codify it."

    I agree with this - Americans seem to be far too caught up in traditions and sticking rigidly to the Constitution, rather than living by the principles that defined its creation. The constitution and its ammendments are meant to protect the liberties of the American people, not transform them into constitution-worshipping slaves, bound by only what is written, and not appreciating the flexibility that is inbuilt into the vagueness of the constitution, shown in ammendment 9 - protecting the "unenumerated rights" of the people.

    I too agree that aruging the constitution alone can solve modern political problems is less than pragmatic, verging on "infantile" certainly. The Founding Fathers created a document that was able to adapt for things, they gave it an ammendment process for the exact reasdon that they knew it could not last forever without being slightly adapeted and changed to suit the times. This should be embraced, not rejected.

  3. I think that worshipping the constitution is a key part of being an American and that they are right to be proud of their constitution and what it stands for. However, I don't think the constitution should be relied upon so heavily as many issues that are raised today aren't mentioned in the constituion such as gay marriage mentioned in the article. The constitution itself lists an amendment process so obviously the founding fathers didn't expect it to stay the same showing how it evolves. The constitution should be the frame for American beliefs such as protecting liberites but using the constituion for America to return to its “founding principles" is outdated as times and priorities have changes since it was written.

  4. "I think that worshipping the constitution is a key part of being an American"
    I also agree that being patriotic makes Americans who they are. It is beneficial for Americans to respect their constitution and the structure of it, and I believe if the UK were more patriotic we may have better voter apathy in general elections, and the country may respect politicians and the decisions made more.
    However an amendment process was put in place, in order for the constitution to be amended and so, although I think it is acceptable to almost “worship” the constitution, Americans should respect the idea that amendments can be put in place to allow the constitution to remain current with the politics of America.

  5. Although the US constitution symbolises the birth of the nation in which 'life, liberty and pursuit of happiness' is established for the millions of Americans and forms the chief foundation underlying their entire political system, it does not make the 4,400 word document everlasting. The basic principles may still apply, but it is near impossible to expect an article wirtten over 200 years ago to be relevant to 21st century politics. As M. Klarman suggests, 'the framers would not even recognise America's modern government'. How can something written by a small group of aristocratic men living in a time when 'equality' referred unquestionably and exclusively to white males be used to deal with complex and contreversial political matters such as gay marriage? Civil Right Act? A national health service?

    If the Founding Fathers had wanted the people of future generations to worship the constitution, the amendment procedures would not have been thoroughly explained in the fifth Article. The vagueness of what they produced ensures its flexibility and hence has allowed it to be easily adapted througout the centuries - developing WITH society, not remain isolated from it.

  6. For example, [Tea Partiers] say that the framers’ aim was to check the central government and protect the rights of the states. In fact the constitution of 1787 set out to do the opposite: to bolster the centre and weaken the power the states had briefly enjoyed under the new republic’s Articles of Confederation of 1777."

    The Tea Party movement is going ‘back to basics’ with American politics; they wish to de-federalise government and return powers to local governments. Although I am not suggesting they wish to de-federalise all the way back to the Articles of Confederation, (where a state of anarchy hit America as states acting as separate countries were vulnerable to outsider political and economic problems), I do not think this is a viable and suitable idea for the America of today. Same sex marriages and nationalised healthcare are a couple of matters among many which could never have been contemplated with totalitarian state rule. The Constitution of 1787, a short and simple document has stood the test of time. The compromises and promises the Founding Fathers made were extremely forward-thinking and profound for the time, and found, I think, a good balance between federal government and the states, in addition to 3 separated levels of government all inter-monitored by checks and balances. Surely the fact that there have only been 27 amendments to it in 223 years shows the thought and care that went behind it in the first place? It has allowed revolutionary ideas to bring America into the forefront of global politics. So for this, it definitely deserves some kind of worship.

  7. I think that despite all the criticisms of the constitution, without this document America would not be what it is today. The fundamental aspect of it for the majority of American's, is that their rights are protected from government which is exactly what the constitution delivers today as it did 200 years ago. Its inevitable that it will be criticised for being imcompatible with todays politics as when it was written the debatable issues of today such as gay marriage simply were not issues that people were concerned with however I believe if this issue was addressed in the constitution there would be more disputes as anything decided on that issue would offend someone. Therefore I believe the best thing for the Founding Fathers to do was to create the constitution to be as vague as it is to allow modern politicians to decide the interpretation as otherwise the consitituion would be doing the opposite of its purpose for what it was created for which was to limit government and give more freedom to citizens. Overall I believe the constitution should be regarded as invaluable to US politics today.

  8. I think that the Constitution is special because of its determination not to infringe on citizens' rights and instead provide a positive set of rights, however perhaps the way Americans revere their Constitution is excessive. Despite being quite radical and forward-thinking when it was written, it's no longer as relevant as it once was because in the 200+ years since its establishment, there have been so many new issues that the Founding Fathers could not have foreseen, such as the internet, which causes problems with of censorship and how far it is unconstitutional due to freedom of speech.
    I think American people have every right to defend the aspects of their Constitution that are still relevant in today's society, but I also think they ought to be more pragmatic and realise that despite the Founding Fathers attempts to make it a document that transcends time, there are aspects of the Constitution that are no longer relevant.

  9. The constitution of the USA is world famous as it was a revoloutionary document when it was made. For this reason I understand why Americans 'worship' the constitution as it has framed their history and their lives as they know it. The fact that they are proud of it and very patriotic is something that the UK could take on board. I do think however, that even though the American citizens may like the constitution as it is, it is fundamentally an old document that has not moved with the times. Some of the parts of the constitution are just not relevant in todays society and Americans need to overcome their attachment to it, so that it can be changed for the greater good of the country.

  10. Like so much of the world's literature, I think it is vitally important that what is written is read with a thorough understanding of context. The values and ethics of the 1700s were very different to what they are today, and thus people have rightly corrected the omission of the Founding Fathers to give the vote to women or slaves. Yet while they have accepted that society has moved on in those respects, many Americans are still bound by to the literal meaning of the Constitution in others, for example the 'right to bear arms' in the Second Amendment. Blinded by their love for the document, they allow nine people to definitively determine what should, and what should not, be taken with a pinch of salt with regard to context - decisions which can have a fundamental impact on the lives of the average American. Therefore, they should not obey the words verbatim, but instead live and grow within the spirit with which they were written.

  11. Being a Patriotic Country , America have every right to 'worship' their constitution.On the matter of amendments,many believe that it is not necessary for the constitution to be amended, as it is quite flexible.
    Although I think amendments are necessary in a constitution to keep up with the evolving world.When the Constitution was written , one could say it was left vague so that it could be amended easily, it even has an amendment process which shows that the Founding Fathers took amending the constitution into consideration . If important amendments are not passed then it is impossible for America to move forward.

  12. CLF
    In my opinion the Tea Party’s arrogant assumption is that anyone who does not support their movement is in some way disparaging the constitution and its principles. In fact the party has hijacked American patriotism in order to gain support and to demonise any who do not follow their movement as ‘Anti-American’. - “If you are scared of the tea party movement, you are afraid of Thomas Jefferson”.
    This is a powerful doctrine in such a patriotic country yet it is wrong to suggest that support of the principles in the constitution is equal to support of the Tea Party itself, in reality the two are very distinctly juxtaposed as the constitution favours bolstering the center and weakening the states whilst the Tea party’s key policy is limited federal control.
    Thus in addition to the arguments listed above the dangers the constitution include so called “constitutional idolatry”, a term which allows groups such as the Tea party to manipulate Americans who believe that they are supporting their nation and its Founding Fathers whilst in in reality their vote represents something very different.

  13. JR
    Being patriotic is one thing but I think that the Americans revere their constitution so much that it may hinder the progress of America. The founding fathers created a flexible document understanding that American culture would change after three centuries therefore, yet still American politics can still be seen revolving around the same 4,400 words.
    In my opinion, the Supreme Court still use the constitution too literally. Have American's forgotten the context in which many of the articles were written in? The second amendment, the right to bear arms, was written so that if the British were to turn around and come back, America could hold strong. Do the American's really believe that even with the largest military forces in the world as well as nuclear warheads, an individual with a hand gun would make much difference?
    I'm not saying that the Americans should scrap the constitution it merely needs to be made more pragmatic and the American people need to consider the fact that their democracy was founded by seven “aristocrats” who could not foresee the changing demographics of the nation.

  14. I can understand in principle why many Americans worship their Constitution. It provides them with rules to live by and gives each citizen a clear understanding of their rights. However, where the document, written with the politics of 1787 in mind, fails, is that it does not account for the modern issues of today, despite the Tea Party movement claiming otherwise. At the time, laws regarding such issues as gay marriage and rights had not needed to be established and as a result the Constitution is far from the comprehensive document that most Americans would have us believe.

  15. Considering the circumstances in which the Constitution was introduced and the effect it has had on framing America as a whole, it is hardly surprising that Americans 'worship' their Constitution. It has become more than a 4000 word document outlining the structure of government, it has somehow come to represent everything that America stands for. In terms of holding America together in the last two centuries, I think their dedication to the Constitution has been an asset, giving all Americans a common belief and something they want to protect. The danger comes when people stop looking at what the Constitution represents as a whole, and begin looking at individual sections and particular wording and expect it to still apply to the modern day.

    Like everyone, I agree with the article when it suggests that the Consitution is not enough; it cannot always be taken literally. A return to 'grassroots' America may sound good, but it just isn't a realistic solution in modern day America. In fact, with regards to modern issues such a censorship, the media and gay marriage, there is almost nothing in the Constitution which can actually be applied to these situations. How can there be when it was written in the 18th century? To suggest that a newer appraoch shouldn't be applied to deal with these situations really is 'infantile'.

    Not only this, but it seems to me that whilst claiming to be following the principles of the Constitution, many are forgetting some its basic principles. For example the majority, if not all, involved in the Tea Party are strongly religious, and when they suggest a return to traditional principles, they appeal to ideas of religion and God. During her speech in Nashville, Sarah Palin was discussing protecting these values and referred to the sanctity of life, which is very much a religious viewpoint, not one of the Constitution. This is forgetting (or simply ignoring) the fact that the Founding Fathers actively tried to separate religion and government when they established the Constitution.

    In addition, as the article picks up, in their worship of the Constitution, many people seem to have got their facts confused about what it really says. Constantly mentioning the people who grow our food, small businesse owners and average Americans, Sarah Palin seems to have forgotten that these people did not write the Constitution, in fact their role/influence was minimal, if not non-existent. And the Constitution introduced strong government and weakened the states, not the other way around.

    Like I said, I understand why people may wish to 'worship' the Constitution, and I do not think they should be criticised for it. But people should remember to look at it in context and consider how relevant it can be in a modern soceity before disregarding any other approach to politics other than following the Constitution exactly, especially if they fail to grasp some of the key ideas behind the document.

  16. I believe that Americans have every right to worship their constitution, as we can clearly see that it is a proud and huge part of their heritage. Fundamentally, the Constitution was written for the purpose of establishing and protecting the rights of all American citizens. This was the case over 200 years ago when the Constitution was written, and it is still the case now in 2010. The Constitution still carries out exactly what it set out to do. However, with this in mind, I think it is also fair to say that it has become apparent in recent years that perhaps Americans should not rely upon their Constitution quite so actively. The fact that the ammendment process is actually described the document itself shows that the Founding Fathers never intended for the Constitution to remain the same forever. Overall, Patriotism is a huge part of being an American, and they should not be denied their right to exercise their beliefs by any means.

  17. Wor-ship
    - verb (used with object)
    1. to render religious reverence and homage to.

    After defining the verb, 'to worship', it is clear that the description of Americans 'worshipping' their constitution is an exaggeration. It seems apparent that the patriotism of US citizens and their passion to prioritise and protect their individual rights has been confused with religious adoration of their constitution.

    Being such a large and diverse country, anti-federalist attitudes are understandable, and their wishes to protect the US from becoming a nation which is led by a centralised government make perfect sense. The constitution was wisely written in a way which left it flexible and timeless; 'complex political arguements of today' certainly can be settled within the guidelines of the constitution. Despite there being a few examples of cases in which interpretations of the constitution have slightly slowed progression of US politics, I am certain that for a country as vast and diverse the US, there is no better way to govern than with a strict, codified constitution which is dominant in every government decision.

    The term 'worship' is too strong, but I 100% agree that the importance Americans put upon their constitution is extraordinary. Despite in a small number of cases this having a negative influence, it is true that largely, the strength of the influence of their constitution is a feature which makes the US the awesome country that it is.