Monday, September 17, 2012

American Perfectionalism: The Constitution

Today, we observe Constitution Day. While the Constitution itself is quite old, Constitution Day is not--as a federally recognized celebration, it only dates back to 2004. The law passed that year requires federally-funded educational institutions to mark the day by paying some formal attention to the document. Given the regularly exposed ignorance of many American citizens about what is actually in the Constitution, this generally seems like a worthwhile endeavor.

All good ideas, however, end up becoming political footballs. In South Carolina last week, Constitution Day became a pretext to attack President Obama's alleged lack of dedication to the document.

At a "Take Our Country Back" rally in Greenville, Rep. Trey Gowdy said "Is it OK for me too say 'God bless you?' Is it OK for me to say 'God bless the United States of America?'" Evidently Gowdy has been spending time in some alternate universe in which this is not OK. He must have missed the endless repetition of those words by speakers at the Democratic convention in Charlotte.

At that same rally, one of the sponsors said that he is often asked where he wishes to take the country back to, and the answer was "all the way back, right back to the Constitution." Another, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, said when they are criticized for wanting to go back, conservatives need to reply "you need to have more faith in a 223-year-old document called the Constitution than you do in the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

It should go without saying that no one should want to go all the way back to the version of the Constitution that existed 223 years ago. That document explicitly protected slavery: it allowed the unrestricted importation of slaves for another 20 years, it provided for the return of runaway slaves, it treated slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of representation.

Do they want to go back to the Constitution that did not guarantee the right to vote to freedmen in 1865? Do they want to go back to the Constitution that did not require the states to recognize the Bill of Rights? Do they want to go back to the Constitution that did not guarantee women the right to vote well into the 20th century?

No doubt they would answer that of course they don't want to go back to those parts of the Constitution. But they also do not offer those qualifiers. If asked, they'd say no. But they don't volunteer that information. To do so would be to admit that the Constitution was, from its beginnings, flawed. And that's a problem for them.

For reasonable people, it is easy both to respect the Constitution and its strengths, while bemoaning its failings. That is what adults do: they see complexity, they see shades of grey.

Far too many American conservatives, however, have elevated the Constitution to the status of Holy Writ. Some even claim that it is divinely inspired. How can the Constitution be divinely inspired if it is also flawed?

I realize that saying that the Constitution is not perfect is sacrilege to some ears. But that is precisely the problem.

When we take the work of fallible men and transform it into a sacred text, and argue that all we need to do to return the nation to a state of grace is to "go back to the Constitution," we convert political debate into theological dispute. That is what is wrong with the increasingly religious language that today's conservatives employ when discussing the Constitution.

We hear a lot these days from Republicans about "American exceptionalism." But in fact, that's not what they mean. What they really are insisting on is American perfectionalism.

That is the inevitable consequence of turning American history into a Bible story. It is not enough that the arc of the story be a positive one. It must have a creation story in which the hand of God is explicitly credited with establishing the nation. God's creation is not just exceptional--it cannot be questioned. It is not merely striving (in the actual words of the Constitution) to "create a more perfect Union." It is, in some fundamental sense, already perfect.

While its leaders may be wrong--as conservatives insist Obama almost always is--America never is. Its ideals are perfect, and there is never any reason to "apologize" for anything. There is never any reason to doubt.

We do not honor the Constitution by distorting it. If we wish truly to honor the Constitution on this Constitution Day, we should remember the humility of the men who wrote it and their explicit recognition that it was--from the beginning--assumed to be a flawed instrument.

Part of the Constitution's genius is that it contains within it a mechanism to change it. I can think of no more eloquent statement of imperfection. The very people who wrote it took its imperfections for granted, and provided the means of correcting them.

The amendment process was an invitation to improve, an invitation we the people have exercised 27 times in our history in our quest to become "more perfect." That phrase is our challenge. It does not ask of us smug self-satisfaction at our own perfection. It demands that we always ask how we can make our Union more perfect.

For people who insist on America's perfection, there is only one answer to our current problems: "go back." For those who know that no work of man has ever been perfect, the answer is "go forward."


  1. You might have already seen this, but your mention of the Constitution-as-holy-writ reminded me of this masterpiece by Jon McNaughton.

    My understanding of the orthodox defintion of blasphemy is the treating-as-God that which is not God. If that's so, then I think this qualifies as certified blasphemy here.