The Constitution. For most people that word brings to mind the image of a fragile piece of parchment.
But consider the word for a moment longer than that initial thought — and what does “constitution” really mean?
The word “constitution” can simply refer to the makeup or composition of something, how it’s put together. But it also means the most foundational, most indispensable ideas at the heart of how a people agrees to govern itself.
Individual freedom, its pursuit and protection, has defined the American experiment. Our country fought for its independence from Britain because its citizens felt their freedoms were being squashed.
Once we had secured independence, though, the Founding Fathers faced a put-up-or-shut-up moment: Could the ideals that roused a people to fight a bloody revolution equally rouse them to peacefully govern themselves? After all, fighting nobly for one’s beliefs is relatively easy; living those beliefs consistently is easier said than done.
The Founding Fathers faced the noble task of channeling our young nation’s beliefs into a stable, functioning government “of, for and by the people.” Not an easy job.
They tried — and failed — repeatedly, in fact, to build a nationwide consensus for how the country should be formed.
America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, collapsed after less than a decade on the books. The Articles left the central federal government too weak to enforce laws or nationwide standards.
Individual states conducted inconsistent foreign policy. The most basic functions of government such as trade, taxes and legislating were arduous or impossible. Many were concerned the American experiment was about to fail.
So America’s early leaders had to try again. This time, they struck genius.
The Constitution of the United States is the most remarkable governing document in history.
The practical structure of government that the U.S. Constitution outlines is itself ingenious. Never before was such a sound, accountable government drawn up. But, to me, the most extraordinary portion of the Constitution is the Bill of Rights.
Remember, the word constitution means the most basic principles by which a people agrees to govern itself. So, in order to know what lies at the core of America, what makes up its most revered fundamentals, look to the Bill of Rights.
It is not insignificant that the First Amendment declares that the government will not endorse any official state religion — and promises that every American can worship whom they wish, when, how and where they wish — or worship no one or nothing at all. It also promises the government will not curtail people’s freedom to say, think or believe what they want, print those beliefs and opinions, or gather in large groups.
This may not seem like that novel a concept these days, but it is.
Just take a look almost anywhere in the world and you’ll see people yearning for these freedoms. The First Amendment, in fact, addresses the freedoms most frequently crushed by authoritarian rulers and governments. Consider recent events in Hong Kong, with hundreds of thousands of people filling the streets because the Communist government in Beijing seems poised to steal the modicum of freedom allowed on the island.
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Americans should remember how amazing it is that our Constitution, the very way we as a people say we will go about living together as a nation, prioritizes the freedom of the individual to truly be free.
Another of the concrete freedoms protected by the Constitution is the right to vote. Every single American eligible should vote. It is one of the most powerful ways to bring your unique set of opinions, values and beliefs to influence the public square.
For this very reason, My Faith Votes is inviting churches across the country to observe Voter Registration Sunday this Sunday, September 22, as a way to help their congregations understand the right to vote and the importance of participating in the process of government, especially as people of faith.
Part of that process is to understand and appreciate America’s government, not the politics of it but the composition of it. There are so many groundbreaking concepts enshrined in the U.S Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
September 17 is Constitution Day. Perhaps there’s no better day than this to take a few moments to read those documents — and be thankful for a country that preserves our freedom.
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