Interpretation: The Constitution Debate

I was recently in a conversation with a conservative Republican about politics and the subject quickly moved into hermeneutics. Before I get into the exact issue I want to make clear that I am neither a Republican or a Democrat, I vote whatever I think is right in the moment and I am very skeptical of political ideology whether conservative or liberal.

The issue that we were discussing had to do with the proper use of the Constitution. The claim that was being made by my friend was, “this country is not running by the principles of the Constitution and we would know that if we just read it.” He then began assert that most people haven’t actually read the constitution (he is probably right about that).

My reply to him was that the Judicial Branch of the government was set up (in the system of checks and balances) by the Constitution to interpret the laws, that involves the Constitution. So, the way that the Founding Fathers desired us to use the Constitution is not to read it and assume we know what they meant but, to have the Judicial Branch give us the interpretation.

It seems to me that the rhetoric of original meaning that is consistently used by many”conservatives” (no judgment in the term I’m merely being descriptive) is false. The Constitution was set up as a living document–it was to be interpreted and to be amended as needed–not as a static one. To insist that we live life according to the Founding Fathers is a disrespect to their vision which was flexible and in need of improvement. One example should suffice: religious freedom. Here is what the 1st Amendment says:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Now, to conservatives this amendment has nothing to do with the separation of Church and State but to the Judicial Branch (Supreme Court) this is the meaning of the 1st Amendment. This should be the end of debate about how the laws are enforced but of course it is not.

What is also of interest to me is that the purpose of the Judicial Branch is not, to my knowledge, explicitly written in the Constitution; it is assumed by its authors. This was a point that seemed to go unheard in my conversation. Simply reading the Constitution is no more effective than reading the Bible. This plain reading will give you knowledge of what the Constitution says but it should not be confused with comprehension of the document.

This is, in my opinion, the great strength of the U.S. government, that is, it has been given the official interpreters. So, if we do not like the interpretation that has been given us then we need to vote in accordance with our felt need.

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