• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • Shouldn’t the Constitution Get with the Times Already?

    Reading the results of the latest Pew poll on how to interpret the Constitution, I was reminded of an insightful remark by the great essayist Montaigne:

    “It is very easy, upon accepted foundations, to build what you please.”

    What really matters, in other words, is the question. Once you’ve framed the problem a certain way, the range of answers is necessarily circumscribed and it becomes much easier to nudge your audience in a particular direction.

    Consider the question posed by the Pew Research Center:

    “Should the Supreme Court base its rulings on what the Constitution (a) means in current times? or (b) meant as originally written?”

    If that is indeed the issue, then it’s a tough one. On the one hand, any honest reader who takes words seriously will want to understand the original text. After all, words have meaning independently of what we would like them to signify and to suggest otherwise is to undermine the possibility of the rule of law. On the other hand, we all live in the 21st century and of what use is a Constitution if it doesn’t speak to the current times? Unless you’re consumed by a romantic love of the past, you need the supreme law of the land to address your current historical condition.

    Seen in this light, the Pew Research Center’s binary question no longer really makes sense. It creates a false antithesis between what the Constitution meant when it was first written and what it means today.

    In reality, the Constitution means the same thing today as it meant two hundred years ago. And that meaning is the republican framework of government that it creates to address the political questions of the day, whatever these questions may be. The Constitution contains no outdated 18th century policy prescriptions that would cause an enlightened 21st century denizen to recoil in shame. And it is not tied to the material and social conditions of a bygone age. To argue for its relevance and supremacy, is to argue that a free people ought to deliberate, via their elected representatives at the state or federal level, on the issues of the day.

    The expression “what the Constitution means in current times” is of course a clever way to speak of a “living Constitution”—the notion that enlightened judges, experts bureaucrats and progressive Members of Congress ought to read in and out of the Constitution whatever rights, policies and institutional arrangements “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” call for. Rather than operate within the confines of the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and the federal republican framework created by the Constitution, the plain words of the Constitution are to be contorted to yield a bevy of new rights that the federal government is compelled to deliver and an array of powers for it do so.

    More perniciously, the designation “living Constitution” is meant to suggest that those who oppose this gross distortion of the language of the Constitution are somehow partisans of a “dead Constitution” who yearn to turn back the clock on two centuries of social and technological progress.

    All this to say that you shouldn’t put much stock in the Pew poll’s finding that there is an “ideological chasm over interpreting the Constitution.” Much more telling are the results of a poll conducted by The Federalist Society a few years ago. By a 2-1 margin, voters preferred the President to nominate judges who “believe that their roles as judges is solely to evaluate whether a law or lower court ruling is in line with the constitution” rather than those who “believe that their roles as judges is not simply to review the law as it is written and not take into account their own viewpoints and experiences” (67% vs. 24%).

    The real choice is not between the present and the past, but between a natural-rights based understanding of limited government and the Progressive embrace of unlimited government and evolving rights.

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    4 Responses to Shouldn’t the Constitution Get with the Times Already?

    1. and2therepublic says:

      "I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: that 'all powers not delegated to the United States,' by the Constitution, 'nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people.' To take a single step beyond the boundries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, not longer susceptible of any definition."

      Thomas Jefferson – Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank – February 15, 1791.

      Words have meanings, or definitions. Without meanings, or definitions words become merely grunts, moans, squeaks, giggles, or noise.

    2. KrisAnne Hall says:

      Read my book "It's Not a Living Breathing Document: Reclaiming The Constitution". Available at http://www.KrisAnneHall.com

    3. Bobbie says:

      I totally agree.

      If people would just grasp it's simple but empowering meaning, they would come to understand what they are giving up which is freedom, liberty, and independence. They would understand this document IS the test of all time. It's written to apply to all mankind. EVERYONE IS INCLUDED. Until someone says, "it doesn't have gay rights in it? DUH. the constitution doesn't break down everyones individual lifestyles. It's scary that obama claims to be a constitutional scholar that doesn't reflect America's peoples constitution?? kind of makes ya want to investigate… and the majority of Americans wanting to throw this beautiful document in the fire when they haven't even given it a chance…

    4. beckncall says:

      When those that seek to shred our beautiful constitution it will be then those now in slumber concerning our country will cry 'What happened?' And when they do I for one will feel no sympathy.
      That constitution is ever replaced, dissolved or deemed obsolute you see how fast our rights, freedoms and protections goes out the window.
      A one world government will not hear "I have rights protected by the US constitution" because they will NOT honor it. If our own media our own government is shredding it to pieces and ignoring it hourly the UN will most certainly laugh at our 'rights'.

    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.