Learning the Constitution Is Essential for Americans

Scholars call the document 'America's civic religion.'

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During the runup to the recent midterm elections, candidates frequently debated whether various legislative initiatives like national healthcare were constitutional, while others argued how far the First Amendment could stretch. "Ultimately, a democracy can survive only if people are informed about the Constitution," says Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean of the University of California–Irvine School of Law and author of The Conservative Assault on the Constitution. "It's stunning to me how often" public figures make claims that are "flat-out nonsense," he says. He points to the Alaska senatorial campaign, during which candidate Joe Miller questioned the constitutionality of Social Security. Chemerinsky says that while anyone can argue about what benefits the federal government should provide, "under current constitutional law, it's clearly established that Congress can create Social Security."

The efforts of political figures to wrap their arguments in the Constitution, however wrong or right they may be, are hardly new, particularly during heated election seasons. Scholars say that comparing the current political climate with that of 1787, when the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, can be instructive. Like partisans today, the Framers differed greatly over issues such as the limits of executive power and how the government should levy taxes.

David Eisner, CEO of the nonprofit National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, says America's founding document offers tangible proof "that people with deep, deep divisions," who "couldn't agree on almost anything, were able to come together, compromise, and build something that's stood the test of time."

Ironically, when delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787, for the signing, some Framers thought the document would last little more than a few years; others gave it a few decades. Virginia's Patrick Henry opposed it altogether, predicting "doom and gloom and that the country is going to fall and that America's liberties are going to be stolen," says Richard Beeman, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution. "He sounds like a Tea Party guy."

However, the Framers presciently—and correctly—realized that some weaknesses in the Constitution might only become apparent to future generations. Black Americans were not recognized as full citizens until the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, and a black man could not vote until ratification of the 15th Amendment two years later. Women had to wait another five decades until they were given suffrage under the 19th Amendment in 1920.

With the subsequent amendments and judicial interpretations, Eisner says, "more and more people have been added to 'We the People.' " The Constitution is an evolving document that aspires to be fully inclusive, he observes, "and over time, we've been coming closer and closer to its aspiration."

Yet two schools of thought continue to debate the Constitution's role in society: "originalists" who believe it should be strictly interpreted according to the Framers' original intent, and an opposing school of those who believe in a "living Constitution" that was written so it could adapt to a changing nation. No wonder scholars call the document "America's civic religion." It is what we use to define ourselves, says Beeman.

And this will only continue in coming years, scholars agree, as issues like national healthcare legislation, same-sex marriage, and immigration reform are argued, perhaps even before the U.S. Supreme Court. "Everything we are dealing with," says Eisner, has "such deep constitutional implications."

Given the spotlight on this historic document, you might want to reread it. Better yet, experts suggest, immerse yourself in the history of its evolution. The National Constitution Center (www.constitutioncenter.org) near Independence Hall, where the original document was signed, features interactive exhibits to help visitors experience the Constitution. For example, you can decide real cases from the center's Supreme Court bench. Other media, from movies to stage plays, shed light on how individuals are affected by the Framers' decisions.