The Founding of Our Nation
No matter the scripture, we humans argue about its interpretation. Did God give Jews the right to occupy Israel, as Zionists claim? Does the jihad mentioned in the Quran justify holy wars, or does it refer to an inner, spiritual struggle? How should we, today, understand Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that reads “Slaves obey your masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ”?
Reading scripture is supposed to inform our spiritual and religious beliefs, but often our beliefs influence our interpretation of scripture.
This is also true when we try to make sense of our nation’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. We can think of these as secular scriptures.
On July 4th, we celebrate our nation’s founding. This is the day that in 1776 the Continental Congress, composed of representatives from each of the thirteen colonies, approved the statement that declared themselves independent of England.
That day, along with the years that followed, is obscured by time and myth. The Revolutionary War lasted seven years. The Constitution wasn’t drafted and signed until 1787. Creating a new country takes time. Many stories have been told about those events and the people involved, and the tales and their manner of telling have evolved over the last few hundred years. Today, our changing view of the past has us toppling statues and changing the names of buildings and sports teams.
The Declaration as Scripture
Nonetheless, a feeling of reverence surrounds the documents these flawed men created. In her book, American Scripture, Pauline Maier describes how they are stored. Encased in a bullet-proof glass container, the documents are protected with helium gas to displace damaging oxygen and enough water vapor to keep them from cracking. At night, they are lowered into an underground vault designed to protect them from bombs. It is almost as if, were these originals to be destroyed, our country would disappear with them. 
Yet the Declaration of Independence has served its purpose. It propelled us into a war that ended with our freedom. Yet we cling to the document. Why?
The Consent of the Governed
One reason may be because its second paragraph contains a statement about freedom and human dignity that is found nowhere in the Constitution or Bill of Rights, yet is integral to our self-understanding as a nation:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.The Declaration of Independence, 1776
Most of us remember the life, liberty, and happiness part. Some remember that governments ought to derive their power from the consent of those they govern. How many of us remember that the whole point of the statement is to declare that citizens, once a government has become destructive to the ends of life, liberty, and happiness, have a right “to alter or to abolish it” and set a new government in its place?
Probably few. After all, once a new nation has been created and its government put in place, it becomes conservative, seeking its own survival above all else.
Ignoring What We Don’t Like
That instinct may have been behind the edited quote etched onto the Jefferson Memorial in 1941. The memorial’s designer wanted the full sentence of that second paragraph to be inscribed there, but there was only space for 325 letters, so the committee took out some words, then sent what they had to President Roosevelt for approval. He thought it looked great, only he wanted the last paragraph of the Constitution included, the one that reads: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
The committee got back to work. They ended up with a watered-down version of that second sentence, along with a butchered closing that Jefferson didn’t write. Taken out was the reminder that governments derive their powers from those they govern and that it is a people’s right to alter or abolish a government that no longer supports their life, liberty, and happiness. 
But this is nothing new. As we do with biblical scriptures, we take from our founding documents that which we want to live by and ignore the rest. Indeed, by the 1790s, the Federalists were doing their best to ignore the violent birth of our country, since they lived “in a world torn by revolution,” like that in France. “Their solution,” Maier writes, “was to forget the Declaration of Independence.” 
The Vision and the Hypocrisy
Yet today we continue to remember it, even if imperfectly. We use it to guide our moral choices as a nation. Over the centuries one faction after another has quoted part of this second sentence to legitimize their justice movements, such the right of slaves to be free, along with the right of those without property, freed slaves, Indians, and women to vote. Today few of us question these rights.
We also recognize the hypocrisy of men like Thomas Jefferson. He and other founders justified the enslavement of an entire race of people because it would have been politically and economically difficult to force the South to stop the practice. Some even convinced themselves it was okay to own slaves. Nonetheless, the Declaration is an important and even masterful document, no less so because Jefferson and his colleagues failed to understand humanity as we do.
Still, it is not sacred. It is a living document that needs to evolve as our ethics evolve. This is also true for our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Like the “men” in the Declaration, the first three words of our Constitution, “We the People,” mean something different to us now than they did to the founders. As time passes, we must interpret and reinterpret our country’s founding documents. As needed, we can create more amendments. One day, we might completely revise them.
The Perils of Economic Interests
Why would we need to change our Constitution?
Probably we won’t. But Howard Zinn, in his book, A People’s History of the United States, makes the case that our Constitution was designed not to protect the rights of everyone, but only of the wealthy. Zinn maintains that because these aristocratic and affluent men understood they couldn’t maintain control of the country without the support of the white middle-class, they put into the Constitution “just enough rights and liberties” to satisfy the small business owner and the gainfully employed.  These “slightly prosperous people” would then champion the document, providing a bulwark against the demands of blacks, poor whites, women, and Native Americans. Together, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights together “enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law,” writes Zinn. 
Whether intended that way or not, our founding documents have been used to make it harder for the poor and marginalized to vote, to enshrine the personhood of corporations, and to justify a war on drugs that has decimated black neighborhoods and trapped men and women of all races behind bars. Is this the country to want?
In his column, “The National Humiliation We Need,” David Brooks quotes Irving Kristol who, in 1970, wrote, “In the same way as men cannot for long tolerate a sense of spiritual meaninglessness in their individual lives, so they cannot for long accept a society in which power, privilege, and property are not distributed according to some morally meaningful criteria.”  Given this, today’s uprising over racism and economic equality should surprise no one. It is time for a change.
Ignoring What We Don’t Like
But do we need to scrap the entire thing? Perhaps we can change the way we interpret the documents we have. Over time, believers will reinterpret even a religious text. For instance, what did Paul mean when he told the Ephesian slaves to obey their masters? We don’t take that literally today?
If we try to take every part of the Bible literally, we will eventually be forced to throw it out. Invariably, some sentence or section will be impossible to reconcile with our worldview. We don’t stone adulterers and disobedient children, for instance, so we either decide those laws are relics of their time or we ignore them. Also, few people give away all their worldly goods, but those who don’t still consider themselves to be good Christians.
Similarly, we can ignore parts of the Constitution we don’t like. For instance, those who support the right to bear arms that is enshrined in the Second Amendment tend to ignore the fact that this right is contingent upon the need for a “well regulated Militia.” Those who want to place limits on gun ownership, however, often emphasize that phrase.
Mostly, though, we don’t try to ignore the words that are there. Instead, we disagree about what they mean.
Differences of Interpretation
Take the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, 1791
If the government shall not prohibit the free expression of religion, can they use tax dollars to support religious schools?
How far does freedom of speech go? Are there no limits? If there are some, who gets to delineate them?
What does this amendment mean when it states people have the right “peaceably to assemble”? When can the police or the military step in and when ought they to hold back?
As described in the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments, what is “due process,” how do we ensure “a fair trial,” and what are “cruel and unusual punishments”?
We make laws, we uphold them, and we strike them down. This year alone, our congressional leaders and courts have disagreed many times on how to interpret these and other rights. Over the centuries, attitudes toward them have come and gone. None of us gets it correct all the time.
That’s why we must revisit our interpretations and why it’s imperative we learn to dialogue with one another. Verbal attacks and diatribes do not help us fulfill the vision of these founding documents. To build a land where justice and equity are upheld, where everyone can pursue happiness, we must work together.
Rights Versus Responsibilities
Maybe part of the problem is that most of our founding documents speak of rights, not of responsibilities. When we focus on personal freedoms, we become a nation of separate individuals bent on our own happiness alone. We refuse to wear masks; we smash windows and loot businesses.
But that is only a part of who we are as a people. In both the Declaration and the Constitution lies a vision that includes creating a common good. We see this in the Declaration’s second sentence. Though it does speak of rights, it also declares that a government must be accountable to its people, and the people must insist on a government that ensures the safety and happiness of all.
The Declaration’s last sentence, the one Roosevelt liked, pledges that the signers of the Declaration, and by extension all of us, will support one another with their lives, fortunes, and honor. Talk about responsibility. That’s a big one.
A More Perfect Union
Though mostly concerned with establishing the rights of individuals, the Constitution, in its Preamble, articulates a vision that includes the responsibility of creating a “more perfect” nation:
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.Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, 1787
Since those who crafted these words didn’t think of women and Indians, for instance, as being part of “we the people,” we must interpret these words based on today’s values. To create a union out of individuals, establish justice and tranquility, and promote everyone’s welfare, however, we must each be responsible to the whole.
A Living Document
Like the Declaration, however, the Preamble lacks the force of law. In Jacobsen vs. Massachusetts, Henning Jacobson argued that he shouldn’t have to get a smallpox vaccine because that would violate his liberty as laid out in the Preamble. The court, however, declared that only if supported by another part of the Constitution could the Preamble be used in court. 
That’s why we can’t be guided by rights alone. Court battles should not decide everything we do. To have a more perfect union, to promote the general welfare, we must be guided by something greater, such as those visionary words that Jefferson wrote, no matter how much we might dislike him, and by the language of our Preamble, no matter who the authors meant to include.
Even so, the vision laid out by these 18th-century white men of means is not perfect. Indeed, the Declaration was written for a single moment in history, to be discarded when the work of revolution was done and the task of building a nation had begun. The Constitution is a living document, meant to be improved by amendments. Not even the men who wrote it thought it was perfect. 
Living the Vision
By treating these documents as sacred and trying to remain true to the intent of the founders, we get stuck in a past when women had no voice, blacks were property, and the Indians who first settled this land were at best ignored and at worst slaughtered. But we don’t have to get stuck. We can strive to build an even “more perfect Union.” We will disagree on what, exactly, this means. That’s all right. We can still strive to live up to the vision of a nation based on equality; on the ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness; on justice, tranquility, liberty, and the general welfare.
Sometimes we do a lousy job of living up to this vision, but it’s our job as citizens to remember who we are called to be, to hold our government accountable when it goes astray, and to improve the working of our Constitution and of our courts, because the United States was meant to be a place where freedom and happiness were for everyone, not just the few.
We don’t always agree on how to make this happen. But if we can focus less on our individual rights and more on what is good for the society as a whole, we might be able to start the conversation.
In faith and fondness,
- Maier, Pauline, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998, 16.
- Ibid 209.
- Ibid 209.
- Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States, New York: HarperPerennial, 2003, 97.
- Ibid 98.
- Brooks, David, “The National Humiliation We Need,” The New York Times, July 3, 2020, A23.
- Monk 14.
- Ibid 17.
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