The Nationâ’s Lifeline
Recognize the Constitution as our common â‘religionâ’
This is Constitution Week, so proclaimed by both city and county mayors in Knoxville and observed around the United States as a time to contemplate and celebrate the U.S. Constitution. Itâ’s the worldâ’s longest surviving national constitution at 220 years old, and it may be appreciated elsewhere more than it is in this country.
The official national Constitution Day was Monday. It wasnâ’t a holiday, because schools are instructed to teach the Constitution on that day under the congressional act that created it in 2004.
It was a noble gesture by Congress, recognizing that the teaching of civics has been de-emphasized in recent decades and that studentsâ’ understanding of government and the Constitutionâ’s precepts and protections has suffered in the process. But one dayâ’s constitutional civics lesson is hardly an education on the several meanings of the enduring document and their importance to American society.
The contention that the civil rights of Americans are threatened by the current national administrationâ’s actions in the name of security may be valid, but such arguments are lost on those who donâ’t understand the Constitutionâ’s provisions and who are unclear on the separation of powers as it disburses them among the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches.
The judiciary takes the heat for its interpretations of the Constitutionâ’s provisions, but that is what the judiciaryâ"up to and including the Supreme Courtâ"is there to do.
Our Constitution is continually under assault by those who wish it interpreted in ways that support their views. Knowing what it says may not make those interpretations any more valuable to the citizen-interpreter, but it is essential to those charged with its enforcement. To decry the rulings of the Supreme Court as the work of â“activist judgesâ” is disingenuous. Everyone wants activist judges to be active in ways that suit them.
The single most misunderstood wording in the Constitution, the passage that kicks up the most furor, is the 1st Amendmentâ’s section on religion. It looks pretty simple. â“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.â” The establishment clause prohibits the government from religious practices and the free-exercise clause allows citizens to believe as they choose.
But there has always been a clamor to allow more religious expression on the part of government institutions, and there has always been a bias against non-believers either serving in government or being allowed to challenge any governmental institutionâ’s adoption of religious expression.
Religion and religious fervor are troubling in the government realm, as evidenced by current world problems with Islamic fundamentalists in states governed by Islamic law. But the question of religion in government is a question that was basic to the founding of the United States and the thinking of its founders.
Freedom of religion is the most important of all personal freedoms, as it underlies the freedoms of speech, press and assembly that are included with it in the 1st Amendment. If one is not free to believe as one wishes, what good are the other freedoms delineated there?
The framers of the Constitution recognized that freedom-of-belief pre-eminence. Even before they got around to amending the document with the Bill of Rights, they concluded in Article 6 of the original document:
â“...no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.â”
Itâ’s pretty clear that the Founding Fathers wanted to separate religion from government because they understood that individual religious beliefs, or non-beliefs, were not compatible with a government established of, by and for all of its people.
This is the week to think about such things. Their study in school can only help develop a clear-thinking, open-minded, liberty-loving and freedom-respecting electorate in this nationâ’s future. Lord knows, we need that.
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