There is much debate over how to interpret our constitution; after all, how could we possibly understand it in the same way the founders understood it? Just how should we interpret the Constitution?
In an attempt to answer this question, let’s establish a foundation on which we will build our answer.
First, we have to understand the purpose of Government, and second, the purpose of our Constitution. We have to understand these things because your idea of the purpose of government shapes how you would interpret the Constitution, whether as static or living.
Purpose of Government
This is a deep subject, so, today, I wish to look at two sources that will help us discover the real purpose of government.
For our first source, I believe that we, as Christians, must look to the Bible to see what God’s Word says about government.
In Romans 13:1, we are told “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
So, from this verse, we understand that God sets up the authorities that be. Peter also writes about this subject in his first epistle, and gives us an understanding of what government should do.
“Submit yourselves, for the Lord’s sake, to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by Him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”
This is just some of what the Scriptures say about government, but, I think, from these two passages, we can clearly understand that our responsibility is to submit to the authorities God establishes, and that it is the government’s responsibility to punish evil and praise good.
For our second source, let’s see what our founders said about the purpose of government.
Authored by Thomas Jefferson and called our national birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence explains that, at times, it is necessary for groups of people to separate themselves from one government and set up their own, in order to secure their God-given rights, including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
To connect these two points, the Constitutional functions of government, summarized in the Preamble, fulfill the Biblical functions of government by punishing evil and providing great opportunity for those that do good.
It has been pointed out by various authors and speakers that our Declaration of Independence is the “why” of government, and the Constitution is the “how” of government. The “why” could be translated as the purpose, and we clearly see in our Declaration that the founders believed the purpose of government was to secure our God-given rights, which led them to draft the Constitution.
Purpose of the Constitution
The purpose of the Constitution, as outlined in its Preamble, is to “establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
The Preamble gives an overview of how the rights set forth in the Declaration of Independence — life, liberty, pursuit of happiness — will be preserved in the government. Then, the rest of the Constitution lays out how government would accomplish it’s purpose — to protect our God-given right and establish what is laid out in the Preamble. That’s the Constitutions’ purpose.
Interpretation of the Constitution
Now that we understand governments’ purpose and the purpose of the Constitution, let’s dig into how we interpret the Constitution. There are two main ways for doing this, and only one is correct, so let’s study each and find out which is right.
Some say the Constitution is a static document, while others say it is a living document. Now of course this doesn’t mean that some say the Constitution has static electricity flowing through it, while others say that it has a brain and functions as a living cell. So in order to understand what each group believes, we must define these two words.
Dictionary.com defines static as “pertaining to or characterized by a fixed or stationary condition.”
In our case, this means the Constitution should be interpreted as the founders would have interpreted it.
Wikipedia defines a living document as one that is “continually edited and updated.”
It is important to note that, when speaking about the Constitution, this is not meaning that the Constitution can never be amended; in fact, James Madison himself wrote the first ten amendments to our Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. The view of a Living Constitution is more accurately defined as Barak Obama states in The Audacity of Hope, it “must be read in the context of an ever-changing world.”
I believe it’s also important to notice the different beliefs on each side of the debate. Largely, conservatives believe that the Constitution is static and therefore should be interpreted as the founders would have. On the other hand, liberal Democrats or progressives believe that it is living, and can be interpreted to fit modern-day agendas.
Look To The Founders
What did the founders say about how to interpret the Constitution, and can we understand how they saw it? I believe the answer is “Yes”! All you have to do is know your history and read what the founders wrote. Progressives tend to try to make it seem complicated, but it doesn’t have to be this way; in fact, because the founders knew their history, they were able to warn future generations about how to defend their liberties!
Thomas Jefferson writes: “On every question of construction, let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”
Thomas Jefferson is telling us that, when there is a question as to how to interpret the Constitution, we should study what was most likely meant by the authors, and use that interpretation.
“But why,” you may ask. This is the best way to defend the liberties the Constitution is meant to protect. Because the founders were seeking liberation from the oppressive rule of King George and corrupted English government, they brilliantly created a new form of government that they believed would best protect the people.
James Madison, the main author of our Constitution, asks this: “Can it be of less consequence that the meaning of a Constitution should be fixed and known, than a meaning of a law should be so?”
In other words, there’s no debate over the meaning of “Thou shalt not murder” (unless, of course, you’re talking with someone who believes abortion is acceptable). In the same way, there should be no debate over the meaning of the Constitution. Certainly, some things may require study, but as a general rule, our Constitution is not confusing, ambiguous, or hard to apply to the modern age.
We can understand how the founders saw and interpreted the Constitution. If we wish to protect and preserve our liberties, we must interpret it as the static document that it is.
We need to remember that the problems we face in modern politics on how to interpret the Constitution are not the Constitutions’ fault, and as citizens, we need to elect government officials that care enough to interpret it as the founders would, for the good of the people!
Abraham Lincoln said it well:
“We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.”
http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2010/04/the_constitution_as_a_living_d.html (this one is where I got the quote from Mr. Obama’s book, and they have a word hyper-linked to where someone can see more from his book…)