Today marks the two hundred twenty-eighth year since the conclusion of that hard-won summer collaboration which resulted in the creation of the American Constitution. It remains one of the most powerful documents in defense of liberty ever written. Though we are witnessing its complete disintegration in the hands of unscrupulous and irreverent people, it still stands as the greatest bulwark for a people with the will and religious devotion to wisely govern themselves and pass on the blessings of good government to future generations. Like the law given to the nation of Israel, it is a testimony to our failure to live up to its ideals, seeking instead for lesser sovereignty to be like all the other nations. Robbing our children of the advantages we inherited, we are quickly earning the reproach of history and our ancestors, who came here from every corner of the earth to work hard and live up to those principles embodied in it. It will fade away like all parchments do, unless it lives in the heart and abides in the mind of each American. It remains the silver frame to that apple of gold, our Declaration of Independence (as Lincoln put), as long as we cherish and uphold the principles that give it power and substance. If we run toward its results – the affluence and technology – but neglect to care for and nurture the causes – the Christian fundamentals that make it possible – it will be, just as Coolidge predicted, a “barren scepter in our grasp.”
Without the ability Christ’s teachings have to control wrongdoing at its source – before it manifests in crime and violence against each other – mastering them first in the individual self-control of heart and mind, no constitutional framework will succeed. This is why Coolidge could also say no nation ever outgrows or surpasses its religious convictions. It is the foundation of the American experiment. Government authority cannot take the place of an individual’s self-government. If Christian principles continue to be shunned from the public arena, some system of belief will always take its place. It does not follow, however, that whatever faith a nation venerates will be equally as enduring or ennobling. If reading the New Testament to children is dismissed as psychologically harmful, as the Court did in Abington v. Schempp (1963), what social, political, or constitutional standards will society honor when such things as stealing, murder, lying, and infidelity are repudiated? We will only undergo the terrible fate of what George Washington warned, when he look ahead to what America would become,
Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?
Coolidge would note nearly a century and a half later, “The nation has lost little, but has gained much, through the necessity of due deliberation. The pressing need of the present day is not to change our constitutional rights, but to observe our constitutional rights. A deliberate and determined effort is being made to break down the guarantees of our fundamental law. It has for its purpose the confiscation of property and the destruction of liberty.” While Coolidge could justifiably go on to say the the Supreme Court of his day was the “chief obstacle” to this effort, such is no longer the case. We are fast descending into a one-branch government every time the Court decrees national policy from the bench, declaring the narrowest opinion to be “the law of the land,” beyond challenge, all future questions dismissed with prejudice as incontestable precedent, however shoddily assembled the justification for the majority’s conclusions.
Coolidge went on to say, “The time to stop those who would loosen and weaken the fabric of our Government is before they begin. The time for Americans to range themselves firmly, squarely, and uncompromisingly behind American ideals is now. The great body of our people have an abiding faith in their own country. The time has come when they should supplement that faith with action. The question is whether America will allow itself to be degraded into a communistic and socialistic state, or whether it will remain American. Those who want to continue to enjoy the high estate of American citizenship will resist all attempts to encroach upon their liberties by encroaching upon the power of the courts. The Constitution of the United States has for its almost sole purpose the protection of the freedom of the people.” Then, most presciently, Coolidge said, “We must combat every attempt to break down or to make it easy, under the pretended guise of legal procedure, to throw open the way to reaction or revolution. To adopt any other course is to put in jeopardy the sacred right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness” (part of President’s address in dedication of monument to Lafayette, Baltimore, Maryland, on September 6, 1924).
It is not the veneration of parchment but the reverence for principles that bring us back to the abiding importance of the Constitution and Declaration. Happy Constitution Day!