Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Where the People Rule

September 17 is designated as national Constitution Day, when citizens old and young are encouraged to study our nation’s founding charter. Most know the famous preamble:

"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."

What a wonderful opening phrase, “We the People.” Conventional wisdom in that day held that government was established from the top down. Some men were born to rule, others to obey. That was known as the divine right of kings. But in the newly established United States, government was not mandated by heaven. Legitimacy flowed from the bottom up, from the consent of the governed.

That’s why the Constitution doesn’t mention a deity anywhere in the text. The framers in Philadelphia weren’t clergymen but lawyers by and large. Thirty-four of the fifty-five present were either attorneys or judges. They were more comfortable with the language of contracts than with theological discussion. And government, they believed, was based on a social contract–a voluntary association of individuals joining together by mutual consent. Legislation didn’t spring from a holy book, therefore, but from the People instituting their own laws. So John Adams asserted that the framers “never had interviews with the gods or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven,” calling ours instead “the first example of government erected on the simple principles of nature.”

The Constitution they drafted was criticized at state ratifying conventions for leaving out the Almighty. The only place where faith is mentioned, in fact, is in Article Six, where it is specified there should be no religious tests for public office. Some tried to modify this language–to insert a provision that only candidates sufficiently orthodox could stand for election. That was the practice still in effect in Britain, for example, where only Anglicans were entitled to the full privileges of voting, serving in Parliament, or attending state universities at Cambridge and Oxford. The King was head of the Church, as well as head of State. But America took another path.

So on Constitution Day, those of all faiths—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists–can celebrate the genius of our founding document, where all are equal citizens, regardless of their personal beliefs, and where “We the People” rule.

1 comment:

Holly Jones said...

I argued this very point today; for my dialogue course about Israel and Palestine, we read an article advocating an increased role of religious dialogue in all tracks of diplomacy; not a bad idea in and of itself, but untenable for high level diplomatic negotiations, where an identification of a political group with a single religion seems pretty dangerous to me; dualistic and a denial of the full legitimacy of political life to a broad range of people.

I talked a lot about how great secularism is in the US, and how it fosters religious understanding and tolerance when we fight to preserve it.

Most people thought that speech somewhat irrelevant, though.