Starting Constitutional Discussions at the Beginning.
Hot button issues, by definition, don’t lend themselves to serious discussion. The opposing sides run hot and start to argue rather than coolly and candidly discuss various sides of a dispute. There are usually more than two sides to an argument, which is why only arguing two sides can frequently miss the point.
Ironically, arguments based on two strongly opposing sides are often called Third Rail issues after the third rail that runs beside a track. The important third rail carries the electricity that can either be used to move groups people forward on the other two tracks, or kill individuals who come into contact with it.
These days it has become increasingly difficult to move groups of people forward on almost any issue. One third rail issue dominating the news now and for quite some time is the Second
If we take a step back and consider the start of this great nation, it’s odd that anything in the U.S. Constitution would be a hot button issue. That’s because the Constitution, the foundation of the American system of government, was set up understanding its imperfections. It was designed to be constantly amended. As a result, there have been 33 proposed and 27 ratified amendments since 1789. The so-called sacrosanct Second Amendment was merely that — the second, and not even the first of many amendments to follow.
The discussion we likely should have first about the Second is: Was it ever meant to be sacred? Was anything in the Constitution supposed to be sacred? If so, should we consider Democracy more of a religion than a form of government? Are the words of the Constitution to be regarded more biblical than as civic guidelines for how to stay a free and open society?
If anything is sacred in the Constitution, it’s our system of three branches of government, and that’s it. The Constitution is simply a statement of how the government is designed to operate. Everything else is an Amendment.
Fundamentalism in Government
On this religious weekend celebrating both Easter and Passover it’s worth taking a look at fundamentalism because it most easily recognized in religion. There, as elsewhere, fundamentalism is the antithesis to change.
Even so, most of our major world religions have experienced change from Orthodox Judaism to Reform and Reconstructionist, or even Judaism evolving for many into Christianity. And then in the Christian world, Catholicism leading to Protestantism, which itself ranges from Anglicanism to Baptist. Even Buddhism has variations on a theme from Tibetan to Tantric and Zen. If democracy is like a religious calling, can it not then also change as new information is assimilated, and times and people change?
Our founders, largely lawyers by training, were schooled in the art of open-ended questioning. They were clear about their intentions to start a new nation, but also honest about their own failings as men, or ability to be prophets for the future. They were merely men of their times.
The most insightful if not most famous writing is in the Preamble – the first words — of the Constitution. Let’s take a second to dissect it.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…“
immediately recognizing we were far from perfect even then.
“establish Justice, domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense…”
if word order and capitalization matter at all than justice and peace are seemingly more important in rank than defense both in terms of coming first and being emphasized with initial caps.
“promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States.”
The concepts of general welfare and posterity have particular meaning now as we continue to debate the Second Amendment in light of the general welfare of the nation’s youth and the current youth led movement of March For Our Lives established because we put the rights of some above the welfare of the many.
This week retired Justice John Paul Stevens wrote an Op Ed in The New York Times calling the Second Amendment “a relic of the 18th century.” Many feel his opinion may hurt rather than help the cause to review the intent of the Amendment. His point of view seems steeped in the notion that the instead of fulfilling its initial purpose, the Amendment has become “A propaganda weapon” for the NRA. The NRA responded by calling the Right to Bear Arms a fundamental freedom.
It’s worth questioning if there are any fundamental freedoms in the Constitution? There are freedoms, for sure, but fundamental? Meaning that they can’t be debated? That’s up for debate. What defines Justice (capitalized in the Preamble) is itself always up for debate. Certainly freedoms can be as well.
- We are not free to spew hate speech on someone’s lawn.
- We are not free to murder another.
- We are not free to steal.
- We are not free to do whatever we want without consequences.
- We are not free to drive a car without a license or a tractor trailer with a different, special license.
There are many freedoms we hold, but are regulated or curtailed in some or many ways.
At a recent March for Our Lives in South Jersey, one elderly gentleman carried a sign, “What ever happened to Well Regulated?”
Words matter, and the words “well regulated” matter as much as any in the Second Amendment. Some may argue well regulated includes banning Bump Stocks and AR15s. Others may argue it’s just background checks, and that’s a healthy debate. What should not be debated is the concept of “well regulated” as those words are clearly written out.
Little Hinge Action Steps:
- Read the Preamble to the Constitution. You can Google it.
- Visit the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
- Get Your Own Copy of the Constitution. For less than 50 cents you can get an ebook pocket edition, or you can buy a 10 pack for less than $12 from the ACLU and distribute copies to others.
- Check out The Constitution Project.