The Constitution has made quite a comeback in the last year or so, becoming a symbol of good government to whomever is holding it up. When the Republicans took back the House in early Jan., some congressmen took turns reading the Constitution aloud, in nearly its entirety, as a show of their commitment to it.
While the Constitution is undoubtedly one of the most important documents in American history, the scene was a completely unnecessary stunt and speaks volumes on the poor state of discourse about the document.
Nobody outside of courthouses and law schools actually discusses what is in it anymore. Most people just say that they know it better than some other people on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Still, with everyone claiming that some other group of people do not know it, I ask you this: have you actually read the Constitution? All 4400 or so words?
If you have and think you know it as well as those in Washington do, test yourself on it with this slightly modified question that used to appear in popular polling services: Which of these phrases appear in our Constitution? “The consent of the governed,” “Of the people, by the people, for the people,” and “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The answer? None of them.
When the actual question (with five choices, none of which are in the Constitution) was asked in a poll, nearly nine-out-of-10 Americans got it wrong. How can people hold it up as sacred when they do not even know what is in it? But do not worry, it turns out some of the most prominent people in Washington know the exact words just as well as the average American.
In a debate with Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell, Senator Chris Coons claimed that separation of church-and-state was in the Constitution, and O’Donnell said she did not realize it. Liberals everywhere rejoiced that the witch was proven to be an even bigger idiot, but guess what, Senator? It is not in the First Amendment as you claim, or really anywhere in the Constitution.
Earlier in the year, at a Tea Party rally, John Boehner, the new Speaker of the House, erroneously said he thought that “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” was a part of the preamble to the Constitution at a rally where he talked about restoring its importance within government. Unfortunately Mr. Speaker, you are thinking of the Declaration of Independence.
Some reading may think that it is horrible that our politicians cannot even recite simple lines from the Constitution, but it is because the American people now expect politicians to engage in these “gotcha” and pop-quiz moments at any given moment on a public stage
While I do not find Boehner to be a particularly competent politician, it is not because he made a mistake relating to the Constitution at some rally. Honestly, I would not hold it against my politicians that they do not know the Constitution word-for-word. Sure, I would much prefer if they had a deep understanding of the document, and I think that this would stop a lot of the talk of “unconstitutional” every time someone does not like a law, but I do not think that knowing the document’s exact wordage at any given point equates to knowledge. As engineers who regularly take open-notebook tests, I think that we would be holding them up to an unfair and hypocritical standard.
America has been reduced to thinking that a Spelling Bee relating to the Constitution is sufficient, and that it is often better just to claim that you know it better than some other people than to consider the idea that there are still legitimate and different ways to interpret it.
Instead of latching on to these phrases that really are just rhetoric, people should first read it, and then really think about how it applies to modern life.
If people continue to engage in these petty fights over exact wordings, they miss an opportunity to really think about its applications. I point to the second amendment, now widely believe to be about individuals owning guns. The phrase “the right to bear arms” actually may have had (arguably, of course) a military connotation and a focus on the militia at the time it was written, only really shifting in meaning in the last 30 years and with interest groups like the N.R.A. pushing for the now more commonly accepted meaning.
People will miss an opportunity to think about this and the meaning of it if the Constitution continues to act like a prop, proof of patriotism purely based on memorization.