Why the Constitution Isn't the Bible

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by James Leroy Wilson by James Leroy Wilson

Ever since I was a freshman in college, I believed in two things:

  1. Low taxes and free markets;
  2. Constitutional federalism – that the states had most of the sovereign power and the federal government very little. A state or local government could allow abortions, or ban them. Same with pornography, sodomy, or prayer in schools. And that neither the federal courts, nor the legislative or executive branches had any say in them either.

Even before I called myself a libertarian, I was convinced of these ideas by both history and logic. I called myself a conservative at the time because I was also committed to a Machiavellian pragmatism in foreign affairs. When national security is at stake, moral considerations, in and of themselves, go out the window, and prudence should reign supreme, I thought.

I was also committed to an ethically-neutral proceduralism grounded in the Constitution. It mattered not whether the Constitution was right or wrong, good or bad. But it is the rules for the federal government and its officials. And the government must play by its own rules, or we will have despotism. Many countries have nice-sounding Constitutions yet live in tyranny, and I didn't want our country to become one of them.

My shift from conservatism to libertarianism has had less to do with policy, than with mentality. It went from the belief that a limited, well-defined State can do tremendous good, to a belief that the Modern State does no good at all. In policy, there's not much of a break. The James Leroy Wilson of 1989 as a college freshman, is in substantial agreement with myself today as to the legally proper and Constitutional powers of the federal government. If myself, at the age of 18, was allowed to be transported to today and be a candidate for President, it'd be tempting to vote for him. He'd have been right on most of the issues; he understood the Constitution.

But that's the problem in a nutshell. That teenager in 1989 had few intellectual tools. Only, superior education in high school history, a knowledge of what the Constitution said (because I actually read it), an interest in public affairs, and a desire for clarity and reason. Was I rare? Yes. But was I exceptional? No. There are several thousand in my age group who are similar to me. Many are more intelligent than I, but just never took much of an interest in politics (to their credit). But to the extent that they are committed to clarity and reason, they would concede that the current government of the United States has practically nothing in common with the Constitution of the United States.

And that, alone, proves the point. If, as an ignorant college freshman, I could establish the unconstitutionality of most of the federal government's programs, who couldn't? There were and are many who would and could make the case, perhaps numbering in the millions. Yet since at least the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790's, it is clear that those who are sworn to defend the Constitution, are the first ones who would violate it. And the people, for the most part, just go along.

What does this say? That the Constitution is not, and never really was, the issue. That ethically-neutral proceduralism – allegiance to written words – can not and will not preserve liberty or any other ethical principle. Sheer ambition, political will, and persuasion of the people, will override any plain meaning of the words of a Constitution or any other document.

For example: if the Constitution had any authority, there'd be no:

  • Congressional "authorization" for the President to go to war whenever he sees fit;
  • No War on Drugs and no PATRIOT Act that allows federal snooping of our private activities on the assumption that we're terrorists;
  • No "Bi-Partisan Campaign Finance Reform Act" which empowers the federal government to make criminals out of non-violent critics of incumbents;
  • [insert your least favorite federal Cabinet Department here].

What I am suggesting is that the Constitution, if the letter of its law was obeyed, would be preferable to the government we have now. But we can't go back. If the Constitution itself was so good, it would have been obeyed from the very beginning. But near the very beginning, it was violated, and has been violated ever since. Whether from a self-perceived higher ethical law, or expediency, the Constitution will always be violated. It has not been, is not now, nor ever will be, a check on despotism. Yes, Americans will still think of themselves as free and therefore morally superior to other nations. But many public school students in the Soviet Union also used to think of themselves as free. Illusion is not reality, not even the grand illusion of our Constitution.

But, as it turns out, the Constitution is not God. Its nice sounding, reasonable rules will be discarded whenever a "crisis" emerges or the poor call out for "justice." Or for any other reason in which the ethics involved appear to be more important than the procedural rules.

What are we to do, then? Insist on the procedural rules of the Constitution? Is the procedure the source of our liberty, our societal salvation? I think not. Yes, the Constitution, if followed, provides excellent restrictions on Presidential abuse of power, Congressional recklessness, and judicial ideology. But it is not followed. Why is this so?

It is because the ethical/religious views of the people and their rulers take precedence. The rulers try to change the ethical/religious views of the people through various means, such as public education and televised Presidential speeches. If they don't get their way, they will conform to, and then exploit, the ethical/religious views of the people in order to increase their own power.

Gary North’s new book, Conspiracy in Philadelphia, available on-line provides a refreshing account of these issues. The ethical/religious changes of the American people in 1787 began when Roger Williams founded Rhode Island as a reaction to the theocratic Massachusetts Bay colony. Political upheavals in England leading to Whiggism were also crucial. Most important was the scientific and alchemistical research of Isaac Newton leading to Modernism, a revival in Deism/Unitarianism, and modern Freemasonry. Also, there was the Great Awakening in which pietism and individualism replaced Puritan Covenantalism.

North places great importance on the Oath, alleging that this, not the First Amendment, created the Separation of Church and State. No federal officer would have any "religious test," that is, will not be bound by an oath before the Trinitarian, Christian God. This was an about-face from the practice of all twelve of the states that sent delegates to the Convention (and, ironically, consistent with the principles of the one state that was a no-show: Roger Williams' Rhode Island.) The leading Founders were not orthodox, Trinitarian Christians, and their new Constitution was a break with the Trinitarian, Christian God and a new Covenant with a new God, the "People."

Dr. North's approach may be incomprehensible to the unreligious. But his challenge to American Christians is remarkable. Western Christians, even if they try to resist the spirits of the age such as Marxism and Darwinism, must still confront their own Newtonian Modernism, and their innate belief that humans can somehow figure out the universe and play at least some role in saving themselves and society, instead of relying wholly on the infinite grace of the Triune God.

But I write this not to advance Christianity, let alone Dr. North's Christianity. Only to acknowledge my debt to Dr. North for showing me the actual game and the stakes involved. The "law-order" of society does not ultimately rest on the political structure and votes, but ultimately on the ethical/religious beliefs of the people. Dr. North alleges that the Founders did not defer to the God the people worshipped, but rather made the people God. And in doing so, they were able to change the ethical/religious character of the people. This wasn't evident then, but it is evident now. Whether or not one is a Christian, it is evident that even among so-called conservative Christian believers is a tremendous sense of patriotism and allegiance to democratic/republican forms of government.

At the very beginning of the national Republic, Christianity was compromised. And Presidential elections ever since have been referendums on the ethical/religious law-order of society. The Civil War was a referendum on nationalism. The election of 1900 was a referendum on Imperialism. 1936 was a referendum on the New Deal. And each step of the way, the ethical/religious, law-order of Christianity moved in favor of more state control of our lives, liberty, and property, and toward a lesser role of the Church in regulating our conscience and personal affairs.

Again, I stress that I'm not writing this to make theological points or defend Dr. North's theology, but only to get to the main point. The Constitution is powerless against the claims and wants of the people, especially if those wants are moral and religious in nature yet cloaked in secular, "public good" language. No Constitution can protect the people from a charming demagogue that the people themselves support.

If the ethics and the faith of the vast majority of the people favor liberty and decentralization, they will get it and enjoy it regardless of what a Constitution says. But if they want to control other people in other places through the National State, they will get that also, regardless of the paper restraints on the government. And if the people are indifferent, the government will recognize that as well.

In any regime, the rulers are ultimately accountable to the people, but the people are not sovereign. They are not God. They can use democratic institutions to try to impose social and economic justice, and world peace and democracy. They can also make a law that says that 2 + 2 = 5. They can try these things, but all they prove is that the people are not sovereign: 2 + 2 = 4 no matter what anyone desires or says about it. God and his Laws – natural, ethical, and Biblical – are sovereign. The people's attempts to try anything else bring about their own curses. We reap what we sow.

Gary North shows that the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was exactly this: the attempt by man to get rid of God and to perfect humanity through enlightened rationalism and social evolution. The ratifiers at the state conventions did not realize it, but it is evident today. The pre-dominant Church has no relevant reply – no intellectual resources – to answer Darwinism and Marxism, precisely because it has already yielded to Newton's Modernism and faith in Democracy.

Whether or not Gary North's view is correct theologically, this has valuable lessons for us today. The fight for liberty, which is the fight against the Modern State, must be waged on ethical and/or religious principles, and not merely on the grounds of "if the government just followed the Constitution, we'd be a lot better off." This is a matter of right and wrong, good and bad, and, if you will, obedience or disobedience to God, not just Constitutional or Unconstitutional.

I'd rather fight for liberty rather than for a Constitution, just as I'd rather give my life to God than to the State.

James Leroy Wilson [send him mail] lives and works in Chicago and is a columnist for the Partial Observer.

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