Constitution Day: toward a More Perfect Union
September 17, 2019
A lot of our calendars skip right by it. There aren’t fireworks or parades, barbeques or days off work. But September 17th still matters -- whether we realize it or not. It’s the day we laid the keystone of American freedom and exceptionalism: the U.S. Constitution.
A few blocks from FRC, people still come from all over the world to see its yellowed paper and fading ink, the truest testament ever to the experiment of self-government. Some will say its ideas are old-fashioned and out of date. But don’t let the age fool you. At 232 years, the Constitution’s ideals still look as incredible as ever.
If you’d asked the Framers more than two centuries ago what the future held for their new nation, even they couldn’t have known. When Benjamin Franklin walked out of the Pennsylvania Statehouse on this same day in 1787, he knew what Americans had sacrificed for their independence: 25,000 lives – men and women who would never live to see this more perfect union. It was a republic, he told a grand Philadelphia lady – if we could keep it.
And keep it we have – through war, loss, scandal, crisis, and tragedy. Today, it’s the oldest written Constitution in the world -- and the only one, Ronald Reagan would say, that begins with the words “We the People.” So imagine the Framers’ disappointment, all these years later, to realize that the biggest threat to their vision is those same people. For all the cries from the Left that pieces of our Constitution are archaic and obsolete, the problem isn’t our system of government. The problem is our country’s ignorance about what that system is and how it is supposed to work!
In an annual poll by the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, 22 percent of Americans couldn’t name a single branch of government. Almost a quarter of our country. The good news, the authors insist, is that Americans seem to know more about the Constitution and separation of powers than five years ago. About two in five adults (39 percent) could correctly name all three branches of government – the highest number, they point out, in five years. “While this marks an improvement, the overall results remain dismal,” the center’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson lamented. I’ll say. How can we protect a country whose foundation we don’t understand?
And maybe, for the liberal guardians of education, that’s the point. There’s been an intentional effort over the past few decades not to teach civics to our young people. Because the Left realizes better than anyone: if Americans don’t know what their rights are, they can be more easily deceived. “A constitutionally illiterate people elect constitutionally illiterate representatives who make constitutionally illiterate decisions,” First Liberty’s Lathan Watts warns. “How else do you explain U.S. senators [grilling] judicial nominees about their personal religious beliefs…?” Or states like Oregon bankrupting families like the Kleins for operating their bakery out of the plain text of the First Amendment?
“Constitutional ignorance is an existential threat to our republic,” Watts explains. “If we are unwilling to protect the Constitution, it is unable to protect us.” Fortunately, America finally has a president who not only cares about the plain text of the Constitution -- but nominates others who do. For once, we have an administration that puts the principles of freedom first. And that commitment is contagious. Men and women of faith who were persecuted for their beliefs under the last administration are standing up and fighting back. By their own stories, they’re inspiring young people to care about the Constitution and the meaning of its timeless rights.
Just this week, two women – business owners from Phoenix – won a major victory in the Arizona Supreme Court, because they refused to accept the city’s decree that in this age of political correctness, free speech doesn’t matter. Like a lot of wedding vendors, these calligraphers didn’t think they should be forced to create custom, hand-printed invitations for same-sex weddings. As their attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) argued, no one should have to give up their constitutional rights because they’re artists or business owners -- or in this case, both. And yet, under this twisted understanding of our Constitution, Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, owners of Brush & Nib Studio, could have ended up in prison just for operating their shop out of their Christian beliefs.
By the narrowest of margins, a 4-3 ruling, the pair was spared. “The rights of free speech and free exercise, so precious to this nation since its founding, are not limited to soft murmurings behind the doors of a person’s home or church, or private conversations with like-minded friends and family,” the court agreed. “These guarantees protect the right of every American to express their beliefs in public.” For Joanna, Breanna, ADF, and all Americans, the decision was a vindication of the Constitution we celebrate today -- and a reminder of what’s at stake. As Thomas Jefferson put it all those years ago, “It is in the manners and spirit of the people that a republic is preserved in vigor.” May we be the kind of people who don’t just cherish our liberties -- but stand ready to fight for them.
Tony Perkins's Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.