Respect versus Idolatry

When Republicans read the United States Constitution in the House of Representatives, they censored the embarrassing passages of the document, you know, the part about slavery and African American being 2/3s people in Article I, Section 2.

I am glad that people are ashamed of slavery. On the downside, the efforts to depict the Constitution as perfect strike me as idolatrous.

I admire the founding fathers because they were human beings with warts and flaws that achieved an extraordinary feat.

Covering up their errors is not doing them a favor. More importantly, the United States Constitution is not the tower of Babel. It was not supposed to reach into heaven but it was a pragmatic compromise to address existential challenges of the American people.

Therefore, the Constitution requires permanent adaptation to a changing environment and the changing needs of the American people. Furthermore, the Constitution can also be improved. It was not meant to be perfect and it is not perfect.

The genius of the founding fathers was, in part, that for all their passion, principles, and insights, they could compromise with each to address the problems of the day.

Slavery was part of that compromise. It was the price for consensus. As a result, millions of Americans suffered exploitation, torture, and deprivation. 500,000 Americans had to perish during the Civil War before slavery was formally terminated.

It’s disrespectful to those who suffered to pretend that their fate and their lives were not codified in the United States Constitution.

Tragedy is as much part of the United States Constitution as glory. Acknowledging that not only celebrates the inclusion of those who were once left out, women and African Americans, but it also renders those who opposed inclusion more humane because it helps us to appreciate their misguided but sincere notion of virtue.

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15 Responses

  1. Rob says:

    It was actually 3/5. The reason for that compromise number was that northern states, which didn’t allow slavery, did not want slaves to be counted in census numbers because that would increase the voting power of slave states in Congress and thus perpetuate the practice. Southern states, on the other hand, wanted all slaves to be counted in census numbers for precisely that reason. The 3/5 number was the resulting compromise.

    There’s a popular myth that this 3/5 number (sometimes thought to be 2/3, as you’ve shown) represented a then-current nationwide practice of institutionalized discrimination against African-Americans which treated them as “less than whole persons.” In fact it was the compromise of an argument in which the Northern states were trying by peaceful means to reduce the power of the slave states because they _did_ recognize the “whole personhood” of those held in servitude–an effort led in part by those who would go on to found the Republican Party. History takes funny twists sometimes, doesn’t it.

  2. Hellmut says:

    Thanks, Rob, for correcting the number. I am aware of the representation competition. Essentially, it meant that the slave masters got to vote for their slaves or more precisely, white Americans got to vote for black Americans.

  3. TGD says:

    UGH! I heard on the radio the other day some politician refer to the constitution as a “Sacred Document”!

    WTF? So the country now has it’s own religious scripture? Save me from this insanity!

  4. Wayne says:

    I think it is great that they read it and that they are going to try to have people justify new laws based on the constitution. For one, It should provide Jon Stewart with more fodder and secondly it may provide a reminder to people that the Constitution is a product of compromise between people who did not agree.

  5. ff42 says:

    “Therefore, the Constitution requires permanent adaptation to a changing environment and the changing needs of the American people. Furthermore, the Constitution can also be improved. It was not meant to be perfect and it is not perfect.”

    And the founders provided such a way to do so, that is the reason for the 18th (and 21st) amendments rather than direct executive (or judicial) action (as is the case for the current ‘war on drugs’).

  6. RecessionCone says:

    I don’t think the Republicans were trying to portray the Constitution as perfect – in fact, by reading the Constitution in its latest revision, as opposed to the original text, the Republicans presented the Constitution as a living document. Insisting on reading the original text, regardless of the changes we as a society have made to the Constitution over the years – now that would be idolatry.

  7. Hellmut says:

    I see your point, RecessionCone, although I am not sure if I agree with you. Be that as it may, covering up the warts still is disrespectful to the founding fathers who ought to be remembered in their entire humanity.

    They considered the Constitution as a compromise and changed it right away by adding the Bill of Rights. To them, the Constitution was a living document from the very beginning that would require maintenance from time to time.

    By contrast, the Republicans wanted to read the Constitution to invoke a higher authority that supposedly requires us, in their view, to shrink the federal government.

  8. chanson says:

    I agree with the professor cited in the the article that the whitewash was a problem because: “We have to interpretively decide what supersedes what,” he says. “The Constitution is a thread. Nothing is ever erased and nothing can be omitted. Nothing tells us specifically what it repeals.”

    Aside from that, however, it may be a good thing that they took the time to publicly read it aloud. If nothing else, it’s an object lesson illustrating that it’s not that long — so they can actually read it and know what’s in it (thus avoiding embarrassing displays of ignorance, at least).

    OTOH, I think this isn’t the only place where the idea that the Constitution is sacred, divinely inspired document has crept into the public discourse (not just the Mormon discourse, as pointed out by TGD). It’s a bit of a problem if people treat it the way they treat other sacred works (pick your favorite pull-quotes and ignore the parts you don’t like). Also, viewing it as handed down by God may hinder people from looking at real-world experience (such as constitutions of other countries) to judge how the outlined system of government might be improved.

  9. openminded says:

    Oh god. I was with my family for the holidays, and my dad was telling me about some mess he heard from Glenn Beck.

    Something about how the constitution says it lists “God-given” rights, so why should we change what is God’s word? Shoot me, please.

    Interesting how, just like God’s word, the constitution is subject to interpretation. It’s a bit like an open canon with the Supreme Court (quorum of apostles), appellate (the seventy), and local (ward president?).

    Anyways, it’s obvious that the message was designed to fit the audience. It’s just annoying how well it works.

  10. djinn says:

    Rob, slaves had no voting rights at all. They were 0 of a person. The 3/5 number was how much extra voting representation a slave gave the white people in the state. The slave states wanted to have their cake (slaves count for size of the population when apportioning representation) and eat it too (slaves don’t to get to use that existence to vote.) And they got 3/5 of it.

  11. Rob says:

    @djinn: You are correct. I did not say the slaves could vote themselves, only that the southern states wanted their numbers counted for purposes of determining Congressional representation, and thus greater voting power in Congress by those states.

  12. Hellmut says:

    Its a bit of a problem if people treat it the way they treat other sacred works (pick your favorite pull-quotes and ignore the parts you dont like).

    Exactly, Chanson. On the other hand, there is this notion among some Mormons that scripture has divine authority but is not perfect.

    That’s actually a pretty cool move. The problem is that it fundamentally changes the meaning of words such as prophesy and revelation.

  13. chanson says:

    Rob — your blog looks interesting, and I’d like to add it to our blogroll. Can you tell me which category it goes in? (faithful or post Mormon)

  14. Rob says:

    Thanks Chanson. I have a question, would you mind e-mailing me directly? Thanks.

  15. chanson says:

    OK, I just emailed you.

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