We Keep Cheapening the Message of the Founding Fathers
Sitting in a dentist's chair recently, mouth stuffed with the usual paraphernalia, I -listened in silence as my dental wizard proceeded to vent over sex and violence on television. Surely, he harrumphed, the Founding Fathers would've never tolerated such loose standards.
There you have it. Another thoroughly modern condition denounced by -reference to Washington, Jefferson, et al.
Putting aside the fact that TV wasn't even -imagined 230 years ago , or that Thomas Jefferson, a favorite Founder, was having sex with a female slave, this tendency to prove one's case by citing the Founders has suddenly become rampant.
Now, don't get me wrong. I bow to no one in my admiration for the Founding Fathers - their dedication, sacrifice and, most of all, genius in forging a set of remarkable documents unprecedented in the course of human events.
And, at a time when a disturbing number of Americans find comfort in calling Barack Obama a Muslim, or betray religious bigotry over the building of a mosque, it is worth remembering that our Founders were absolute in their determination to father a nation that, above almost everything else, guaranteed freedom of religion.
In a way, we minimize, if not devalue, their contributions when we turn them into contemporary props - for political movements, elections, or just self-aggrandizement by media personalities.
Nor is it helpful when elected officials or movement activists use the Founders to paint the political opposition as being hell-bent on abandoning the Constitution. It's an old trick in new clothing - demeaning the party and people in power by questioning their patriotism.
Carried to extremes, this dishonors what the Founders actually -created - a constitutional republic based on a set of fundamental -principles (self-evident "truths") integrated into a framework that's open (not closed) to debate and interpretation .
If the Constitution in 1789 was intended as the infallible last and only word on all events and circumstances to follow, why then was it amended two years later (the Bill of Rights) and 17 times thereafter (as recently as 1971 and 1992)? And why do people persist in arguing for more changes - covering marriage, flag-burning, prayer in public schools, even the citizenship of babies born in the U.S.?
No one should doubt that the basic principles articulated in the Declaration and the Constitution were intended to transcend both time and technology, establishing standards for not only the 18th century, but generations to come, whatever their particular circumstances, whatever their state of material progress.
But no constitution can be self-enforcing. Government officials must respect their oaths to uphold the Constitution; and we the people must be vigilant in seeing that they do. But we must also resist the urge to view everything as either black or white.
The political purity preached by profiteering agitators like Glen Beck - who supposedly find timeless truths for virtually every issue in centuries-old written words (or made-up observations) - is both misguided and dangerous.
Strict constructionists of the Constitution like to portray the Founders as being fearful of a strong central government. Apart from the impossibility of predicting America's size, complexity and wholly different worldwide role, two centuries later, often forgotten is that a major impetus for the new Constitution was the dysfunctional, weak nature of the government that had developed under the Articles of Confederation and the threat increasingly posed by local and special interests then dominating state legislatures.
In other words, despite the absolute, no-nuance "truths" some attribute to the Founders, in reality tension over the strength and role of the federal government started with the constitutional debates, and perhaps properly, continues unresolved to this day. That is why those proclaiming unyielding conviction on this issue - using their certitude to oppose almost any nonmilitary role for the federal government - are way off base.
The only relevant question is what direction we take today - to respond to the needs and conditions we face today. Do we push the federal government to solve problems, or do we start tearing it down, shifting problem-solving and more basic services to the 50 "well-run," economically "secure" state governments (where, of course, politics, corruption and dysfunction don't exist)?
One can applaud the energy and commitment of tea party (and other) folks who come to their position independent of the doctrinaire nostrum preached by media performers like Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh. But the movement is unsustainable unless it comes up with a coherent, more inclusive vision for the country - one built on tolerance and specificity not a generalized recitation of what the Founding Fathers wrote, or said, or just supposedly said.
And not with simplistic slogans like "cut taxes" or "gut government."
Carl R. Ramey, a former Washington communications attorney, lives in Pinehurst.
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