We hear much rhetoric these days from people wanting to parse the US Constitution and question the legitimacy of government. Amid all the talk I wonder how many people are actually reading the document and evaluating what it says. So called constitutional experts are quick to tell us what it says and means, but there's nothing quite as powerful as a personal assessment and opinion.
The word sacred come to mind when so many speak so passionately about the Constitution. In fact, much of the passionate talk comes from those who insist that the Constitution has a divine source, namely the Bible. Here in Texas, this kind of thinking prompted the recent insistence that our social studies text books highlight Moses as a precursor to our system of government.
I often wonder why the same respect and passion doesn't accrue to the Declaration of Independence. The lofty, inspiring words of the Declaration proclaim principles which have been recognized and honored around the world and not just in our nation. The proclamation- We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed- can be quoted by people who have never been to the U.S. or read a word of the Constitution.
The highlighted words above jump out at me and many others, stating principles so grand and far reaching as to boggle the mind. The truths are said to be self evident. They do not depend on outside knowledge sources, including any divine revelation text. That self evident truth identifies divinely given rights which cannot be legitimately denied. These divine rights are not limited to U.S. citizens, specifically. God given rights logically apply to every human being. The stated purpose of human government is to insure that these rights remain inviolate.
Self evident truth is not based on any reference to the Bible, specifically. The originators of the Declaration of Independence were not claiming Christianity as the basis for that document. They claimed a divinity and a divine operation separate and apart from any written revelation. Every signer of the Declaration affirmed a belief in God apart from the Bible.
According to the Declaration, to the extent our government establishes and maintains the divinely endowed, inalienable rights, it fulfills its purpose and remains legitimate. To the extent it does not, it remains a work in progress and subject to change.
Despite the insistence of many that our system of government is Christian based, our traditional religion could never have been the basis for the Declaration of Independence for several reasons. Christianity recognizes no universal rights, except maybe the right to be condemned. Exclusiveness and divine exclusion are the very subject of the Bible as far as the institutional church is concerned. Secondly, Christianity insists that divine truth is known only by reading the Book; it is never seen as self evident, beyond perhaps the existence of God.
Our present day pundits, politicians, preachers, and "opinionators" who want to vociferously parse the Constitution and proclaim it as the sacred basis for our government are a few years wide of the mark. The Declaration is dated 1776 as most would know. The Constitution, developed some 10-12 years later, represents the subsequent effort to legalize our national ideals. The former was the work of idealists, inspired statesmen; the latter was the mundane work of lawyers with all the attendant limitations. Given our history, one could hardly conclude that the legalism of the Constitution ever matched the idealism of the Declaration.
As noted, the Declaration states the purpose and function of legitimate government. Likewise, the Constitution opens with an affirmation of overarching principles to which government is committed: unity, justice, tranquility, security, liberty, and general welfare. The Declaration states the principles of government and then moves into a statement of grievances; the Constitution initiates with a broad statement of governmental goals and then proceeds to supply the legal framework for its operation in meeting these goals. In both documents, the introductory statements leave ample room for debate about the details of proper government functions.
Both the Declaration and the Constitution use the words "United States" to define our nation. The stated purpose of the two documents was to meld one nation from a bunch of squabbling, independent minded states. The historical pursuit of that unity has been checkered for sure. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that we don't yet know what the basis for that unity is. Are we all obliged to speak the same language, worship the same God in the same way, honor the same assumptions, and generally conform to the same social mores in order to be in union? Many apparently think so. As an argument, one might ask whether everyone couldn't just be in agreement with the stated basic principles of the two documents above without conforming to all these other attributes. Not knowing what constitutes unity makes it hard to attain.
One thing is clear, at least, to me. National unity is not derivable from Christian dogma, which so readily divides our citizens into the divinely acceptable and the divinely rejected and subject to hellfire. Just a cursory review of our history demonstrates how Christian Orthodoxy has promoted endless conflicts and disunity. Unless one's concept of unity is that of unquestioning conformity to the beliefs and practices of traditional religion, then unity is not possible under any dogmatic religious philosophy.
Most likely the founders recognized that true unity and true equality are irrevocably intertwined. A theology of inequality in the eyes of God could no more be the basis for unity than tyranny could be the basis for liberty.