1 July 2009: The Constitution is America

The Constitution is America

I want to thank readers who took time to share how my recent series of articles, from running to working with one’s hands, struck a chord with them.

As I wrote one occasional critic who finally found something he could connect with in my writings, we likely have far more in common than we have in difference. Taking care of one’s self and pursuing one’s path to personal happiness know no political boundaries.

I will return soon to pursuing personal happiness and how it connects with public education, but for now with July 4 on Saturday, it’s an appropriate time to reflect about our national 233rd birthday.

The courageous protesters in Iran, who are warming the cockles of Thomas Jefferson’s heart, struggling under the oppression of religious fundamentalism, offer us the perspective, “There but for the grace of God/Allah/Lord Krishna—name your deity—go we.”

Abraham Lincoln once proclaimed it mattered little whether God were on our side, but if we were on his.

As a believer in a non-personal divinity, as opposed to being a “non-believer,” and a liberal-minded fellow, I don’t take offense at what Ol’ Abe said, but would caution him that belief in God is a personal choice and has no room in the debate on the great issues of the day from war and peace, economic justice, and environmental degradation to personal rights such as a woman’s right to control her body and same-sex marriage.

From roof tops, Islamic Iranians, regardless of political affiliation, shout “Allah is Great!” Islamic leaders are prone to declare the ejaculation as well in their speeches.

Is that any different than how our political leaders, particularly presidents and candidates for the presidency, always end their speeches with “God bless America!”?

In his Newsweek column “Theocracy and Its Discontents,” Fareed Zakaria declares theocracy dead. He holds that in an ever-modernizing global culture an anachronistic form of government like a caliphate can never be empowered for long.

Zakaria might be right in terms of established governments—it’s really hard to imagine a Western state returning to the days of the realm of the Holy Roman Empire—but, nonetheless, Jefferson’s inviolable wall between church and state is replete with cracks such as the example mentioned above. Can we call it “theocracy lite”?

Our Founders—Jefferson and James Madison, in particular—strove hard to separate politics and religion, but the constant drumbeat of religious infiltrations of public debate has gone on mightily since.

In his biography of Andrew Jackson American Lion, Jon Meacham notes Jackson was a “lover of the Christian religion” but found himself needing to be dismissive of Ezra Stiles Ely, the Jerry Falwell of his day whom John Quincy Adams had dubbed as the “busybody Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia,” and other “monkish” sorts that desired to establish a “Christian Party in Politics” intending to combine church and state to make America truly a Christian nation.

In Iran, they call Ayatollah Khamenei the “Supreme Leader.” Interestingly, they called their previous supreme leader “the Shah.”

In the previous American administration, there was a push for the theory of the “unitary executive,” a euphemism for supreme leader.

One might point out that the Iranian model of unitary executive is religious while the still-born American version would have been non-sectarian, to which I reply in two ways: “So what?” and “Oh, really?”

By “so what,” I get at whether it really matters your dictator is a religious nutcase or not, and by “oh, really,” I suggest that it might not be true, especially given our former dear leader’s self-acknowledgement that he had personal reassurances from the Almighty that he was His Arm.

It comes down to a simple truism: whether at a party or in the public square, politics and religion don’t mix.

The Constitution is the glue that holds us together. While we will always debate as to its precise meaning and presidents, including the current one who really should know better since he is a constitutional scholar and lawyer, will tread outside its limits, it remains a hard copy, along with the Declaration of Independence, of our beliefs and organization.

It begins with a simple premise: “We the People,” no mention of God or other mythical power.

Except for the Civil War, the Constitution is what kept us from devolving into chaos, even during our own recent electoral crises when the Florida vote was perceived to be stolen in 2000 and Ohio in 2004.

Even after numerous attempts to shred it by past administrations and still awaiting the present custodian to apply mending tape to it, the Constitution is America.

It’s on that note on this our 233rd birthday to reflect on the Preamble, the single sentence that defines our purpose:

“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.”

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