November 2012 – Among Americans today there is a dearth of knowledge on the Constitution. Few know what the Constitution really says; even fewer are interested.
However, this confusion cannot be blamed solely on a lack of scholarly acumen. Dr. William J. Morrisey recently joined AFA Journal to discuss the root of confusion about the Constitution and its results. Morrisey is professor of politics at Hillsdale College, in Hillsdale, Michigan. Hillsdale describes itself as a trustee of “modern man’s intellectual and spiritual inheritance from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture.” The college does not accept federal or state taxpayer subsidies for any of its operations.
AFA Journal: Why is there confusion about the Constitution?
Dr. William Morrisey: Because interpretation of the Constitution has changed, starting around a century ago with the progressive movement. The progressives made two claims. First, they claimed that it’s not God that endows human rights, it’s the course of human events. The idea is the Constitution changes as the country changes. History is unfolding and rights might change over time. The progressives said what we need is an “elastic” or “living” Constitution, and instead of interpreting it on the basis of what it says, interpret it very broadly. Then the courts said, “If the Constitution is broad, we can do this too.” Then everybody got into the act, all three branches.
AFAJ: How did the progressive view gain so much influence?
WM: It happened in the education system. The idea of historical right (the notion of a growing, changing Constitution) was from G. W. F. Hegel, a German philosopher of the 19th century. You also see this in the theory of evolution – nature is always changing, governed by the laws of history. These ideas got into the school system first, and then they started percolating into churches, into politics and into society. Progressives then found more ready acceptance because the seedbed had been planted in the school system, and people were starting to come up through that school system.
AFAJ: Give me some examples of how the idea of a “living” Constitution has produced confusion on issues that are not in the actual Constitution?
WM: 1) A right to privacy – There is nothing in the Constitution that says you have right to privacy. You have the right against unwarranted searches and seizures. But there is no broad constitutional right to privacy. That right was initially claimed to exist in defense of abortion rights in Roe v Wade. The argument was that since the Constitution guarantees a right to privacy, a woman has a right to abort a baby.
2) Hate speech – You have freedom of speech in the Constitution. Now freedom of speech has restrictions. Slander is illegal. Libel is illegal. And there are laws that define libel and slander. What they’re doing here is introducing another category called hate speech. This turns out to be such a broad topic you wonder, can you criticize the doctrines of another religion? Clearly, under the Constitution you have to tolerate the other religion, but can certainly say, “I disagree with those Muslims or those Protestants or whatever group.”
3) Separation of church and state – When Thomas Jefferson talked about the separation of church and state [in a letter, not in the Constitution], he certainly did not mean what people mean today, which is the secularization of church and state. Separation of church and state only means that there will be no establishment of a state religion.
4) Equal rights as a basis for gay rights – The equal rights amendment has not passed yet, but non-discrimination on the basis of sex simply meant against a male because he is a male or a female because she is a female. It had nothing to do with homosexual practice.
AFAJ: Why should we practice the Constitution of the founders rather than update our understanding?
WM: Because they were right, and because we can amend the Constitution. The rights are God-given. The Constitution isn’t God-given. It’s not like it is inflexible or written in stone; it can be changed. But you need to have a constitutional majority to change it. You can’t just have Congress changing it, or a judge changing it or the president changing it. The Constitution should be above statutory law.
AFAJ: What indication is there in Scripture that God is concerned with human government?
WM: First, he gives a set of laws to the Israelites. So right away, he is concerned. He governs Adam and Eve; he says don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He sets down laws that show he cares about the government of human beings. Second, it’s not just that he gives laws to Israel. Israel is to be the light unto the nations, an example of a godly people. The others can start orienting themselves toward Israelite laws. That doesn’t even touch the New Testament – so that is a universal mission.
AFAJ: Where will it lead if we cease to give the Constitution definitive authority?
WM: It leads to where we have been going: An ever more cumbersome federal government and a decline in moral standards. If you can do this with the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, you can do this in personal conduct. So you get this contradiction – on one hand you have a state that is ever more massive, more controlling, more powerful, and on the other hand you have human beings who believe they can do whatever they want, without violating any basic principle. A people like that are ripe for tyranny because they won’t have a sense of self-government. They’re not going to have the discipline to push back against an organized force like their government. And they are going to lose their sovereignty because the government is going to become sovereign.
AFAJ: How can we uphold the Constitution?
WM: First, through the education system. You can put the Declaration and the Constitution in front of people and show them the arguments are sound. Once the human mind gets hold of a logical argument, it makes sense. And whenever political discussions come up, it is very easy. We mentioned some hot-button issues that can be addressed in a constitutional way, pointing out advantages of a Constitution that gives government power, but limits those powers.
What does it mean?
An informal questionnaire of Facebook friends yielded the following responses from 20-30 year olds with 2 to 5 years of college:
• “Separation of church and state means no one religion can have complete rule of the law.”
21-year-old female, northwest, 2 years college
• “The right to privacy means that my records should stay private unless I release them.”
28-year-old female, midwest, 5 years college
• “Hate speech is when threats or degrading phrases are based on prejudice.”
22-year-old male, midwest, 3 years college
• “Freedom of speech means that the government has no right to limit what I can or cannot say.”
20-year-old male, southeast, 2 years college
• “Equal rights refers to treating each person with the same dignity, allowing equal opportunity.”
21-year-old female, northwest, 2 years college
Participate in the National Conversation on the Constitution, which includes an online class, free with registration at www.constitution.hillsdale.edu.
Constitutional Literacy DVD with Michael Farris. Available at AFA Store or 877-927-4917
Our Constitution Rocks! by Juliette Turner, age 14, www.PoliKids.com; www.constitutingamerica.org