Sunday, January 22, 2006

What the Constitution Actually Says

(The following appeared in the Washington Post last week.)

The U.S. Constitution, like the Bible, is oft-quoted but rarely read. I recently turned to the document to see, in their own words, what the Founding Fathers had in mind for our government and society. I discovered some illuminating things, which are sure to irritate both conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans. Here are just a few samples:

1. Article I, Section 8

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States… (emphasis mine)

So what’s all this about social programs, entitlements, and the New Deal being unconstitutional? Article I says clearly and plainly that the government may tax the citizens for the promotion of the “general welfare”. I can’t think of things that fit the description of general welfare better than retirement insurance or basic health care. Certainly pork-barrel spending and corporate welfare don’t meet this criteria. So the next time a “conservative” tells you that national healthcare would be a socialist abomination and that social security is unconstitutional, please tell them to go read Article 1:Section 8 and get back to you.

2. Amendment I

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. (emphasis mine)

The next time you hear someone say that we are a Christian nation, please direct them to the first Amendment. Not only did the Founders explicitly state that the government cannot associate itself with any particular religion, but there is not a single reference to God, the church, Jesus, or the Bible anywhere in the entire Constitution. These men were excruciatingly attentive to details (as well they should be when establishing a new form of government!) and it is clear in their own words that they wanted the Constitution to be an entirely secular document. That some of these men were Christians or believed that ultimately the desire for freedom comes from a Creator is beside the point; when it came time to set forth the principal foundations for the structure of our government, religion was not only left out but its establishment was expressly forbidden. (Here are some other quotes on religion from the Founding Fathers.)

3. Amendment II

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. (emphasis mine)

Let me come clean: I hate guns and just about everything they represent (although I concede their necessity in our imperfect and violent world). All the same, what struck me the most about this amendment were the words “shall not be infringed.” This appears unambiguous and made me reconsider my belief that restrictions on gun ownership are Constitutional. So for those who advocate gun control (always at their political peril), here’s a suggestion. Why not admit that Americans have a Constitutional right to own as many and whatever firearms they want, and make a deal with the pro-gun lobby: we are going to focus on draconian punishments for those who abuse those rights. With rights come responsibilities, and the pro-gun folks have always argued that the overwhelming majority of gun owners use their guns responsibly. Fine, but if your gun is used by a minor for a crime, or your use accidentally results in the injury or death of an innocent bystander, or someone steals your gun and uses it for a crime. then you are going to be held partially responsible and punished severely. That seems like a reasonable and Constitutional tack to take. It’s also what the pro-gun lobby has largely been arguing, so why not call their bluff?

In summary, I recommend that everyone read the Constitution (or re-read it); you will find things that surprise you and that contradict stereotypes and misconceptions on both the Left and Right. There is nothing like being able to refer to our founding documents to help silence those with notions of what this country stands for that are divorced from reality.

J.S.

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