Monday, October 25, 2010

Beware of Constitutionolatry

The U.S. Constitution is a remarkable document. Ratified in 1787, it is reportedly the oldest national constitution in the world still in use. Perhaps many of you, as I did in my school days, memorized the praiseworthy Preamble:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [sic], 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 of America.
In the past two years, some political and religious conservatives have charged the President with not following or of disregarding the Constitution. Such criticism is stronger and more persistent than it has ever been—at least during my lifetime, and I was born when FDR was President.
Those who criticize the President so strongly place great emphasis on the “original intent” of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. Last year Rush Limbaugh referred to the Constitution as “a gift of God,” and he was given the “Defender of the Constitution Award” at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2009.
But it seems that the position of Limbaugh and others is close to constitutionolatry, that is, making an idol out of the Constitution. (I thought I was coining a new word, but then I found on the Internet that the term has been used before, although not often.) And those who extol the Constitution so highly are usually referring to the original, 1787 document.
Within two years, though, the original Constitution was found to be insufficient, so the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) were proposed and then ratified in 1791. Still, there were some glaring deficiencies. For example, slavery was nowhere prohibited. It was only after the Civil War that slavery was outlawed by the thirteenth amendment, and then African-American men were given the right to vote with the fifteenth amendment in 1870. But still for decades women, white or black, did not have the right to vote.
My grandmother Laura (Neiger) Seat turned 21 (the legal voting age then) in 1902, but because she was a woman she did not have the right to vote in 1904, the year Theodore Roosevelt was re-elected President. My grandmother Laura (Hamilton) Cousins turned 21 in 1914, the year my mother was born, but she wasn’t allowed to vote in 1916, the year Woodrow Wilson was re-elected President, for the same reason: women did not yet have the constitutional right to vote. That situation did not change until the nineteenth amendment was finally ratified in 1920.
So, in praising the Constitution of 1787, let’s beware of constitutionolatry. Even though it was remarkable, there were, indeed, flaws in that beloved old document. And for this and other reasons we also need to beware of the “Tea Partiers” and other “Originalists” who idolize the Constitution and say they want back the policies of the Founding Fathers. (If you would like to read more about this matter, here is a link to an interesting article posted on the Internet yesterday.)


  1. I agree with this. In fact, being one who is only in the States once or twice a year now, when I come back, I can see changes more vividly than if I were living here all year. When I got here on the first day, I turned on the TV in my room and the channel was set to Fox News. I don't know who the person was that was speaking, but he used the discourse style of a televangelist, and was speaking of the divine inspiration of the Founding Fathers, the Christian roots of the Constitution, and how those who sought to maintain the separation of Church and State were destroying America. I was disturbed on many levels, but I never thought that I would have seen such programming on a channel that positions itself as fair and balanced.

  2. Thanks, Greg, for your comments; they amplified the point of my posting well.

  3. Just the compounding descriptors "fair and balanced" prove how insufficient language has become in the age of information. The relativity of words has lost all sense of the prescriptive certainty that many of us were taught in school. Even the simplest words have been given multiple meanings by their rhetorical contexts. Those who decry the threats of postmodernism are blind to the reality in which they are enmeshed. They are more postmodern than they would ever realize.

  4. Dr. Chris Sizemore, one of my local Thinking Friends, sent me the following perceptive comments in an e-mail, and I post them here with his permission:

    "I don't think that it should surprise anyone that many of the 'Constituionolatrists' are also 'Bibliotrists.' I don't know if those are real words, but you get the drift. As you well know, the issue of slavery almost derailed the Constitution and the formation of the United States of America. As for women's rights, women were considered property in those early days."

  5. I think the true defenders of our Constitution are those who vote. The people for whom it's written are the ones who must continue to ensure its a document in practice, not just theory.

    It's little wonder that Constitutionalatrists are those who see no separation between Church and State.

    Thank God we have our Constitution. I like freedom and liberty to much.

    Leroy, some of the surnames in your linage make me wonder if you're related to Fred Neiger (WJC classes of '39) and to former 2BC pastor Solomon B. Cousins.

  6. David, thanks for your comments.

    Fred Neiger and I are distant relatives. His great-grandfather Neiger and my grandmother Neiger's grandfather were the same person: Melchior Neiger, Sr.

    I don't know anything about Solomon Cousins, and I couldn't find out anything about him on the Internet, so I doubt that he is a relative.

  7. In looking more for information about Rev. Cousins, I found that his name was Solon Bolivar Cousins, Jr., (1885-1971), but still no relation that I could discover.