(From Investor’s Business Daily 9/17) Constitution Day — September 17, the day 39 delegates to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention signed and submitted to Congress (under the Articles of Confederation) a new constitution for consideration — used to be familiar to many Americans. But as the Constitution’s authority has faded in our public life, its birthday has faded too.
Don’t think the authority of the Constitution is ignored? Consider the irony of today, Constitution Day:
In a 2004 spending bill, Sen. Robert Byrd attached a mandate that every educational institution accepting federal funds must sponsor a Constitution Day program. But the Constitution nowhere authorizes Congress to tell schools what they must teach. Nor does it authorize Congress to fund educational institutions — that’s supposed to be the job of state and local governments, or the private sector.
Constitution Day, as now enshrined in federal law and celebrated by colleges and universities under threat of that law, is arguably unconstitutional.
So what happened? The Constitution has suffered two blistering critiques, both of which undermine its integrity: First, the Constitution is outdated, no longer relevant for modern America. Second, it is racist and immoral because it offered protection for Negro slavery.
Progressives leveled the first charge more than a century ago; the second became the battle cry of the modern civil-rights movement. Well-educated, well-intentioned, public-spirited men and women who wanted to advance justice, as they understood it, progressives and civil rights activists took aim at the Constitution.
From their point of view, the greatest political good is “social justice,” meaning an egalitarian redistribution of wealth coupled with an inegalitarian distribution of civil rights, all supervised by bureaucratic experts whose interest is, allegedly, the public good rather than their own. The Constitution, by this measure, is an impediment to justice and therefore bad.
This is why Woodrow Wilson, among the most impressive of the progressives and the first president to hold a Ph.D., criticized the Constitution as “political witchcraft.” He argued that the Constitution should be understood as a “living” document whose meaning evolves with time. In its original form, the Constitution was an instrument of evil, designed to keep America frozen in the icy environs of 18th-century racism and favoritism for the rich. For progressives, originalism is regressivism.
Persuaded that the Constitution is fundamentally defective, all three branches of government today violate it, routinely, usually by exercising powers nowhere found in the Constitution. And what does government say about this? The executive and legislative branches typically don’t say much about the Constitution, because they don’t need to (unless a liberal president risks impeachment, then even the most progressive politicians fret over the original intent of “high crimes and misdemeanors”).
Congress doesn’t need any progressive theory of a “living” constitution to do its work. It needs only a majority vote. The president doesn’t even need that. He needs only a pen to sign a bill into law, regardless of its constitutionality. Exhibit A: ObamaCare.
The judiciary is different. Often it cannot avoid confronting the Constitution because of its peculiar job, judging constitutional disputes and explaining those judgments in written opinions. This has led to a new industry in our law schools, where progressive scholars invent fantastic interpretations of the Constitution used by progressive judges to extract progressive results from the very unprogressive language of the Constitution.
But those who pervert or ignore the Constitution all of a sudden find themselves seeking cover from political attacks. Circumstances have combined — political, economic and military — providing a window of opportunity to highlight the Constitution and its conspicuous absence in public policy and law.
Waiving Constitution banners at “tea parties,” however, isn’t enough. The Constitution is in need of a moral and intellectual defense. It needs teachers of constitutionalism.
To be effective, that defense must persuade the public mind and the public’s representatives that the progressive and civil rights critiques have been answered and fully refuted, a tall task yet to be done. The critiques of the Constitution run deep, informed by sophisticated evolutionary theories of human nature and backed by intelligentsia who populate our universities and influence public opinion.
Constitutional apologists, therefore, are in need of study and learning. Only then can we teach. But if we can teach Americans why critics are wrong and why the Constitution is good and deserves to be defended — with our lives, fortunes and sacred honor, if necessary — we celebrate Constitution Day in a fitting way, by helping “we the people” deserve the Constitution bequeathed to us by the Fathers of 1787.
Thomas Krannawitter teaches politics at Colorado Christian University and is a Centennial Institute Fellow. The author of Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President, he joined the CCU faculty this fall after teaching for five years at Hillsdale College. This article appeared first in Investors Business Daily.