The Relevancy of the Constitution

August 12, 2014 – There is a political theme that arises on a fairly cyclical basis for a variety of reasons. At times, it is because of a recent mass shooting. At others it is due to an incidence of cyber-bullying or online defamation. It even arises6518131341_0eacf38ba7_z from the demand for the government to do more to protect against potential threats.
This idea that appears again and again in the public consciousness is that the U.S. Constitution, or more specifically the amendments that enumerate protected freedoms, is no longer relevant, that it needs to be updated or even dismantled entirely. Certainly if one is to move forward with gun control restrictions, hate speech legislation, and federal surveillance programs, the Constitution in its current form is problematic. So then what is it that prevents us from altering the Constitution when we need or desire to pass new laws for the supposed betterment of society?
The modern misconception is that the Bill of Rights is merely a larger, older collection of laws that were intended only as a foundation for future legislation. Working off of this assumption, it is easy to see why the Constitution seems like it needs to be more malleable and open to the changes in necessity or popular opinion that time and cultural shifts necessarily bring. After all, laws are changed on a very regular basis as different politicians come and go and the people desire different outcomes or become convinced of the efficacy of new policies. How can we keep the Constitution updated with the times if we’re not allowed to bend its rules as we need to?
The problem is that the fundamental assumption that this argument is built upon is flawed; the U.S. Constitution was not intended merely as a collection of laws, but rather a codification of fundamental law. The nation’s founders drew heavily on the writings of John Locke[1], especially his concept of unalienable rights, rights which belong to each person and which cannot ever be justly taken away.
The purpose of the Bill of Rights in the most direct sense was to clearly delineate these natural endowments and place them above the power of the government or the people. They recognized the danger of simply following the will of the people in all areas, as the majority can, without a Constitution, vote any variety of oppressive law against those with whom they disagree. This is a frequent problem in the new formation of many Middle Eastern and North African countries, as one ethnic group or religious sect uses their superior numbers to suppress or exterminate their smaller rivals.
Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, it places certain ideals above the hands of the legislators and the executive. The founders feared that a leader, given the opportunity to achieve greater power and control, might take away the rights of the people under the guise of necessity and then never return them. This would be the case with France and the ascension of Napoleon following the French Revolution[2], a chilling reminder of just how quickly the removal of fundamental freedoms can cascade from an initial concession.
But a Constitution, provided it is upheld, protects the people from these trespasses. The government, no matter its call to necessity, is forbidden to remove the rights to speech, or to religion or assembly, or the protection against unlawful searches and seizures. The great irony of the call to update or disassemble the Constitution is that the Constitution was written specifically such that it would not need such measures, because the laws it represents are fundamental, inherent, and timeless.
But it is also important to remember that while the Constitution was established to protect the people, it is only a document. In our modern day, the government finds daily occasion to violate the rights established therein, and the scroll of parchment is not going to stand up and defend itself. Instead, it is only the will and strength of the people that can truly keep the Bill of Rights alive, as only the people have the power to reject any government that will not respect it.
That is now, and always has been, our end of the bargain, that we must resist all attempts to remove the liberty that we are endowed with and for which our ancestors fought so long. It is only by speaking out and openly in its support, and condemning at all stages those who would see it dismantled, that we can ensure that its protections live on for another generation.