Friday, 04 February 2011 00:00
Twice in Levittown’s history, we have been at the epicenter, albeit indirectly in the first instance, in a constitutional issue brought before the U.S. Supreme Court: the 1949 Shelly vs. Kramer case, and the 1976 Pico vs. Island Trees Board of Education case. The Constitution has been on everyone’s mind these days.
I’m glad that people nowadays - especially members of Congress on the floor of the Capitol - are actually reading the Constitution. It’s unfortunate that it takes such doctrinal faction to stimulate what should be an act of anyone interested in history, literature, and political philosophy. I find it especially interesting even though I think the American continent would have been better governed under the Articles of Confederation and even though I consider monarchy and aristocracy superior to republics and democracies; more conducive to sustaining the cultural and intellectual values and institutions of civilized society.
The principal problem with written constitutions - as opposed to the practice of traditions and customs within law - is that they bifurcate into the doctrines of Original Intents and Living Document. Original Intents requires the insurmountable task of finding consensus amongst men of diverse backgrounds and opinions who lived in a pre-industrial society more than two centuries ago that want to be seen more through the lens of apocryphal folklore than some incontestable historical context. Living Document is also apocryphal at times but instead of reductionism to a few limited interpretive parameters, it creates an infinitely-expanding paradigm that dilutes the Constitution of any meaning beyond the arbitrary opinions of the politically- connected lawyers who sit on the bench. With such a legal philosophy, virtually anything could be deemed a “constitutional right” or “unconstitutional” based upon political expediencies or ideological considerations that have nothing to do with this historical document save in name. In this respect, the Constitution may be meaningless except for those amendments that are purely mechanical such as those determining the tenure of the president. (Nobody is haggling over the meaning of “four years”). Too, the constitutionality of many proposed governmental undertakings exists independently of the practical considerations of their undertaking. Maybe, for example, the “commerce clause” or the “general welfare” in the Preamble authorizes the federal government to run a national health care system. Maybe it doesn’t. But the authorization exists independent of the question if something as complex and costly as the health care of three hundred million people can really efficiently operate within a government program.
America’s constitutional battles and crisis’, of which the Civil War was one of its most disagreeable, are really this nation’s equivalent to France’s religious wars in the 16th Century and the parliamentary conflicts and schisms within the Anglican Church during the 17th Century in England. The faith is secular, the law is Man’s rather than God’s; but the issue is more than simply a curious parallel. America was established towards the end of the Great Awakening and became a vast continental republic during the evangelical revival of the early 19th Century. For all its secular humanistic Enlightenment-centered vision of itself, America is deeply entrenched within the upheavals of Christendom; the vision of a New Jerusalem always attracted the common folk more than the intellectual’s vision of a New Athens. Jefferson’s proposed seal for the United States - the Saxon warriors, Hengist and Horsa, crossing the channel - no less than his dream of a nation of yeoman farmers is more a romantic Medieval fancy than the typical neo-Classical city-state ideal popular with most 18th Century intellectuals. The Puritans of New England, like their brethren overseas, drew upon the “Norman Yolk” theme in their writings.
The Constitution, seen in this light, is the secular manifestation of the struggle between the Bible as literal truth and the Bible as metaphorical - with many of the equivalent difficulties that occur in constitutionalism’s Original Intent vs. Living Document. If one debate doesn’t necessarily lead to good governance, the other debate doesn’t necessarily provide a firm intellectual basis for theology. This is especially true of the former. The allegorical nature of much of the Bible doesn’t make its essential meaning any less profound and that it can be seen by Christians as a human artifact inspired by God but distorted by Man’s imperfect understanding has its analog in the physical limits imposed upon Christ by the act of incarnation into flesh: the perfect replicated in an imperfect medium.
There’s no constitutional equivalent to this. But just as ecclesiastical authorities in the days of the Founding Fathers could not have anticipated the rise of a new view of the nature of life ushered in with the dawn of Darwinism, so the Founding Fathers could not have imagined that a constitution needs to address the need of kings. (Which is why England had no more civil wars or conflicting claimants to the throne after 1688.) Human life is far too complex, dynamic, synergistic, unpredictable, subtle, and contradictory - by virtue of our evolutionary legacy over millions of years - to be governed by legalism, abstract theories, lifeless documents, and zombie “living documents.” It becomes estranged from itself. Men and women thusly need rulers - ideally those educated from birth in the art of statecraft and values of civilization - elsewhile their democratic yearnings reduce the intellectual to the lowest common denominator, replace the exactitude of language with simplistic euphemism, and politicize every aspect of life. (That’s why democracies all harbor the seeds of totalitarian lunacy, why the fall of royal dynasties usually leads to a bloodthirsty man-of-the-people).
Let us start reading the Constitution regardless of our political ideology. It’s an important piece of history and an elegant specimen of literature.