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Thinking Out Loud

Owner's Manual of the Republic

by Michael Jinkins | Jul 04, 2017


First there was discontent. Then came a Declaration of Independence. This we celebrate on the Fourth of July. A war followed, then the Articles of Confederation which proved to lack the unifying power needed for the new nation. Finally, there emerged The Constitution of the United States, a document which has at least two things in common with the Christian Bible: (1) It is far more often talked about than read; (2) It is most often used to support ideas its champions already believe. (Those parts of it that contradict its champions' views are usually ignored.)

When the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia advocated some years ago that every school in our country should devote a day to celebrating the United States Constitution, I happily signed on. Why? Because I believe that this document is the Owner's Manual of the Republic.

Most often we think of it, if we think of it at all, as containing the Bill of Rights, which is a set of constitutional guarantees in the form of the first ten amendments. A Baptist minister (a member, at that time, of a small, outlier and minority brand of Protestant Christianity) was among the most vocal advocates for the Bill of Rights, especially the freedom of religion. The first amendment requires that the federal government not establish its own favorite religion or religious institutions and that the government not intervene in the religious practices of its people. This amendment holds even if the religion in question appears strange or repugnant to the majority or is practiced by only a small handful of people. This same amendment also guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom to petition the federal government to redress grievances. If these first ten amendments had not been part of the package, the Constitution would not have been ratified by the states.

Again, we usually think of the Constitution in terms of the freedoms it enshrines, especially through the Bill of Rights. But it also enshrines responsibilities and obligations, principles of self-governance and virtues of citizenship, assumptions about human nature, a commitment to the common good, and the need for and benefits of government.

Famously, the Constitution provides for a balance of powers (checks and balances) among the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the government and appropriate limits on official powers, but it also embodies the assumption of competing values. It assumes, in other words, that even very high values stand in relationship to other values. It is suspicious of any value that attempts to claim an absolute position over other values. The Constitution is a living thing, trembling with life and with tensions. Thus, I have freedom of speech but that freedom is not absolute. It is balanced by the rights of others. Given this fact, as has often been said, I am not entitled to endanger the lives of others by shouting fire in a crowded movie theater. The same tension exists among all the rights guaranteed in the constitution.

Someone (I think G.K. Chesterton) once observed that Americans are big on preserving their freedom to speak, but notoriously lax about exercising their freedom to think. That's worth pondering, particularly in light of the mindless and vicious squabbles our politics engenders these days.

What sets our Constitution apart from so many others is its genius for assumptions, including its assumption that it is as fallible as the human beings who framed it, who offer amends to it, who govern using it and are governed by it. From the very beginning the Constitution assumed that it did not represent the last word on many issues of national, even universal, importance. This is why the process for amending the Constitution was baked into the original document.

Most owner's manuals make certain assumptions. The manufacturer of my car assumes I will not want it breaking down on a lonely highway far from help. So the manufacturer assumes that I will be intelligent enough to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" the car's owner's manual, at least the section about getting regular service. The deeper assumption behind this assumption is that enlightened self-interest motivates me because I live in a rational world. This is not a safe assumption. I know many people who have never cracked open the owner's manual to their car and only become curious about maintenance when the "check engine light" comes on.

There is a similar flaw woven into the fabric of the assumptions guiding our republic's owner's manual. The manufacturers of our republic knew from the beginning that a republican form of government, which is the kind of liberal democracy we inherited, requires the governed to invest time and effort into understanding how the whole thing works and some energy into maintaining the thing. This means more than just popping the hood to check the oil periodically.

One of my most formative memories was watching the late Barbara Jordan of Texas, then a member of the House Judiciary Committee, during the closing chapters of the Nixon era. With a cadence borrowed from Winston Churchill and a moral heart shaped by the Old Testament prophets she had heard preached in her father's pulpit, Barbara spoke in the impeachment hearings on July 25, 1974. I still recall standing in the television room of our college dormitory witnessing the events unfold. You may be able to quote her from memory: "My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution." The constitution assumes this kind of active investment on our part: rational, moral, more committed to the common good than to personal interests and private gain.

During that awful time, as I watched the first president for whom I had ever voted leave office in shame, I recall being profoundly sad. But, however sad I felt to witness this national tragedy, I also felt proud of my country and its leaders.

The Owner's Manual of the Republic saw us through. God knows it isn't perfect. Like all human inventions, it has had its failures and has reflected our devils and not just our better angels. But it saw us through. And I believe it will continue to do its job. But it will be able to do its job only to the degree that we fulfill our obligations and responsibilities as citizens.

So, this Fourth of July, let's not just celebrate our independence. Let's celebrate our interdependence. And let's celebrate the document that still makes it possible for us to live together as a people.
The winners of the Grawemeyer Award in Education this year is particularly interesting in the context of teaching responsible citizenship in our public schools. I hope you'll take a look at it: Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education (New York: Routledge, 2015).

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