If We See the Constitution in its Proper Light, We May Begin to Honor it Again

Much is to be forgiven of youth. When I was an undergraduate at Princeton, full of my own foolish ideas, I got into an argument with a good friend about the foundation of moral beliefs. What he believes now, I’m not certain. He has at least in part, I think, returned to the Jewish faith of his ancestors. In any case, he would not allow for the divine authorship or inspiration of the Torah, or he shied away from making any strong claims about it. But he did make a strong claim for one text. He said that the Constitution of the United States was the greatest bulwark for human freedom and for moral goodness that the world had ever seen.

I have, over the years, come to the opinion that the Constitution is best viewed as a set of by-laws governing the mutual relations of various mechanisms of government; a tool, to be judged by the quality of work it performs, but not itself implying anything specific about the character of a good society, except insofar as it confirms certain broad features of the natural law, such that we should not tell lies, and we should not delight in cruelty, and certain broadly recognized results of human experience, such as that certain people may be too young to be entrusted with deliberation about the public good. The drafters of the Constitution did not discuss those features of the natural law and human experience. They took them for granted. And yet it is the Constitution, not those universal truths themselves, that is revered as an oracle.

I recall here one of the sillier moments in that fine combination of Paradise Lost and Gunsmoke in outer space, the original Star Trek series. A certain planet has lapsed into a brutal pre-civilized state, characterized by constant war between the “Cohms” and the “Yangs.” The Yangs will die any death rather than betray one of their holy words, freedom. It turns out that these are but Communists and Yankees, after a war that devastated their planet and pitched them back into barbarism. But the Yangs are pious people. At a trial between Captain Kirk and the renegade Captain Tracey, who has been interfering in the planet’s culture and supporting the Cohms, the Yangs bring out a tattered Old Glory, and their chief begins to intone the sacred words: “Ee’d Plebnista.” Suddenly, Kirk understands what the chief is trying to say, and he – played by the Canadian actor William Shatner – bursts out in a paean of praise for the American Constitution:

Look at these three words written larger than the rest, with a special pride never written before, or since, tall words proudly saying, “We the People.” That which you call Ee’d Plebnista, was not written for the chiefs of kings, or the warriors or the rich or the powerful, but for ALL the people! Down the centuries, you have slurred the meaning of the words, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty, to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution.” These words and the words that follow were not written only for the Yangs, but for the Kohms as well! They must apply to everyone, or they mean nothing!

The chief doesn’t understand why, but he believes Kirk, and he swears that he will be true to the command: the words must apply to all men, and that is that.

Of course, the Yangs have no schools, no senate, no written laws, if any writing at all, no court system, no recognition of property, nothing that an Englishman or an American in 1776 or 1789 could have expected from a modern nation-state. It is all to be supplied by a Constitution they cannot read, referring to political, legal, and juridical entities whose existence they cannot imagine. The Constitution, in other words, is to do all the long and hard work of civilization and culture. It is like giving Robert’s Rules of Order to tribes in the outback of eighteenth-century Australia and expecting a parliament forthwith. What the tribesmen would have done with that worthy blueprint for organized discussion, other than hang it on a rock and aim boomerangs at it, I cannot fathom.

I do not wish to be mistaken. The original Constitution with its appended Bill of Rights is an excellent blueprint for a government. I admire it as such, as I admire a clever series of canals and locks, or the efficient intricacies of a combustion engine. What has been done with it and to it in the centuries since then is not my concern here. My concern is rather that we have made it into a sacred object, a touchstone of divinity; and in that regard, we are like savages who stare at a running engine and believe that a god is in the works, without considering exactly what work that engine is going to perform. And as such, we have imposed upon the Constitution, or imported into it, substantive assumptions about justice that go far beyond the procedural, and that are properly the objects of careful and mature deliberation, and wise consideration of goods that cannot always be obtained and preserved to the same degree, at the same time, and in an order conducive to human flourishing, either because the goods themselves are not always compatible, or because of the limitations of human nature, not to mention the corruptibility of the human imagination and will. Equality and civil liberty are often at odds; the rights that an individual claims as inviolable will often undermine public order and a thriving culture; the liberty of the press will issue many a free pass for rabble-rousing, defamation, deliberate slanting of the news, and outright falsification by vagary, innuendo, or omission; when speech is defined to include any expressive action, can pornography be far behind?

I should not say that the writers of the Star Trek episode simply forgot about a text that really does claim to be sacred, namely the Bible. It appears that the Yangs have a copy of that too, which they cannot read. But its use in the episode is, shall we say, savagely ironic. Captain Tracey, in the throes of utter wickedness and malice, claims that Captain Kirk is evil, and he appeals to their popular notions of what the devil is supposed to look like: so the Yang chief opens the Bible and finds a drawing of Satan, looking suspiciously like Kirk’s friend and first officer, Mr. Spock, the Vulcan with the pointed ears. The message there seems straightforward enough. The Bible is for myths, and they are backward, savage, foolish. The Constitution – the Ee’d Plebnista – is for the ages. God is nudged to the side, and We the People take his place. The writers of the episode did not consider, nor did they expect their American audience to consider, that to take the Constitution in that light was rather like bowing and scraping before it, while intoning “Ee’d Plebnista” and the rest of the gibberish.

I should say more than that the Constitution of itself cannot do, and was never meant to attempt to do, the work of culture – inextricable from religious faith. If we see the Constitution in its proper, crucial, but lesser light, then we may begin to honor it again for the mechanism that it is, and cease to permit its handlers to use it to dismantle American culture itself. For the ultimate aim of those who elevate the Constitution to the throne of deity is that there shall be no human culture: for culture is always founded upon religious devotion. Man is united by his common worship. The Great Blueprint cannot, and in fact has never, united Americans or even made them American in the first place, though it has given them some nudges this way and that. If, however, the Great Blueprint pours acid upon the greatest aims of human life, or upon its great foundations in marriage and family life, then it is a suicide plot. So I will continue to take it as a blueprint, very fine for the kind of thing it is, and not as a deity or an oracle to be consulted for strictly cultural (or anti-cultural) aims. Let the Ee’d Plebnista be forgotten, and its place known no more.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

Photo: BOSTON - MAY 20: Actor Leonard Nimoy makes the gesture that made him famous when he played Spock on Star Trek, after receiving his honorary degree during the Boston University commencement cereomony on Nickerson Field in Boston, Mass. on Sunday, May 20, 2012. (Photo by Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Notable Replies

  1. This is a decent article. The purpose of the Constitution was to establish a government and stipulate how it would function. It was never intended to be a moral document. The first 10 amendments were added to establish limitations on what the government can do and proclaim certain rights for the population. Things got off track when a consortium of abolitionists, socialists and communists decided to take over government and use the Constitution to further their goals, as in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. They trampled on the rights of states that Madison and Jefferson intended. As far as “justice” goes, government didn’t get involved in it until the Grant administration when Congress established the Department of Justice to prosecute Southerners who rejected the Radical Republican line. The Constitution is not moral law, which comes from the Bible. It was no accident that the Founders left out all mention of God or any other divine being - they saw the Constitution as a manmade document to establish government.

  2. Avatar for Deacon Deacon says:

    However, John Adam’s said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people”.

  3. Avatar for Deacon Deacon says:

    Also in the Preamble it states that “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator…”. I always believed that our Constitution, as with the Bible, are 2 documents that God authored or had His hand in what was said in these documents.

  4. Avatar for task task says:

    That is in the preamble to the Declaration and nowhere in our Constitution. But you do get the point. The Constitution is a governing document based upon the Declaration of Independence.

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