Friday, July 06, 2012

Constitutional Theology

In a column on July 4 E.J. Dionne discussed the unique American characteristic to engage in high principled debate.  He states in part "We are a more philosophical people than we give ourselves credit for. Constitutional questions enter the political conversation in the United States more than in most countries because our diverse nation is bound by our founding principles, not by blood, race or ethnicity.
This has advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantages are our openness and the fact that we tend to argue on the basis of high principles. The biggest disadvantage is that differences over policy are often disguised as differences over whether a preferred choice is constitutional or not. When we should be addressing pragmatic questions — Will this approach work? Will it solve the problem it’s designed to solve? Is this a problem government should do something about? — we instead fall back on rather abstract discussions of whether a given idea violates the Constitution."
He goes on that we should not treat the Founders as theologians not the Constitution as scripture.   While I get his point, I think he misses an essential element of the American system.

The Constitution was made to evolve but it also includes some eternal principles.  The Founders were products of their times but they also understood some ideas like the dangers of having a government that was all encompassing.  They enumerated powers to Congress and then put in that pesky "necessary and proper" clause - but that was not there to rescind the limits on the other powers.    So while I agree with him that pragmatic questions are always appropriate - one of the most pragmatic questions is what will the proposed policy do to the underlying American fabric, that the Founders recognized so well.    That is not theology, it is common sense.

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