Barack Obama famously declared that as a former teacher of Constitutional law, he actually respects the Constitution, unlike his predecessor in the Oval Office. Subsequent events make it fair to wonder exactly how he shows this respect.
Some on the Left barely conceal their disdain for the world-changing handiwork of dead white males. Reverence for the Constitution isn’t universal even among its chief custodians. Justice Ruth Ginsburg raised eyebrows when she advised Egyptian civic activists she wouldn’t look to the US Constitution as a model today. She pointed instead to the constitutions of South Africa, Canada, and the European Charter of Rights and Freedoms, praising them as “great work,” more recent and more generous in protecting “human rights.” The late Justice Thurgood Marshall also was cautious about putting too much stock in Constitutional guidance, asking a PBS interviewer: “What does the Constitution say about rocket ships?”
Actually, the Constitution says as much about rockets as it does about horses and buggies: basically nothing. The Constitution is not the US Code of Statutes, setting out the federal law. It’s more like the rule book or citizens’ owners’ manual that governs the government. It’s a uniquely successful compact in history. But it remains vital only as Americans understand it, support it, and demand politicians do likewise.
Citizens who accuse President Obama of violating the Constitution should have a clear idea what they mean. This would include being able to explain to a friend or child basic constitutional principles and describe the ways they are threatened. Here’s my attempt at a simple, easy to share explanation:
Life is hard and sometimes dangerous. Government can help protect peace and security, but it’s important to think seriously about what government should be and do, as our Framers had to when they organized America.
The big thing they realized is government is unique. Some things need governing, but others just involve voluntary cooperation. Lots of people or groups--like street preachers, hotdog vendors, corporations, your mother—have things they want you to do: repent, buy stuff, call home. But government decides things you have to do or can’t do, at the risk of fines, jail, or, at some level of resistance, getting shot.
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