Friday, July 23, 2010

Why Mormons should accept an expansive view of the meaning of the US Constitution

The US Constitution holds a special importance among members of the LDS faith. President Benson has said in an official church publication that not only was the Constitution "inspired" by the spirit of God, but that it is in fact a "holy document." This elevates the US Constitution to the level of scripture in the Mormon faith. However, for some reason LDS people don't seem to treat the US Constitution the same way they treat other scripture. For some reason, while the general LDS cannon is considered very open to deeply subjective readings, which can be applied to specific contemporary situations; the US constitution is considered thoroughly decided and unopen to new interpretations or insights based on changing circumstances.

I often hear my LDS peers talking about the openness and expansiveness of scriptures that speak to them in new ways according to their circumstances. A common story goes like this: I had a question or a problem that was really bothering me a lot. I thought about it and prayed about it for several days. Then one day while reading my scriptures a particular passage struck my attention and suddenly took on meaning that I had never seen before. I applied this scripture to my specific contemporary situation according to this new insight that I received.

For LDS people the scriptures are saturated with meaning. Any one scripture can mean hundreds of things, depending on the person and the timing and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Study of the scriptures is not limited to the bare text, either, but is very holistic process involving synthesis with outside sources of inspiration as well as introspection into the intention of the words beyond the simplest most bare meaning of the words. However this wealth of meaning is not very well transcribed to the Constitution. For many Mormons the Constitution is a closed document whose meaning is fully understood; and is therefore, not open to the same kind of new and personal spiritually guided interpretations.

This contradiction has recently troubled me after reading, Yale Law Professor, Akhil Reed Amar's book The Constitution: A Biography, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the saturation of meaning in the words of the constitution. While reading his book, it was impressed upon me that the most important inspiration contained in the Constitution is the Democratic idea of openness and flexibility in the face of changing circumstances.

The Constitution was a deeply democratic document - meaning that among its authors and contributors we can include, not only Washington and Jefferson, but also the entire corpus of the fledgling United States' people (or at the very least the men). Be the legal legitimacy of the US Constitution is based on popular sovereignty (the idea that the people as a whole should choose the government), each and every individual interpretation of every person then living in the United States is a legitimate interpretation (because they are all authorities on the meaning of the founding text for which they voted). This creates a huge patch-work quilt of meaning! Every sensible interpretation of the document is a legitimate, because there are an infinite number of ways that it may have been understood at the time.

Furthermore, we know from the documents that have survived from this period that there was a litany of disagreements as to what specifically the constitution permitted and prescribed and as to how to implement it into a functioning government. All this amounts to a lot of built in flexibility when interpreting this document, which goes a long way in explaining why the Constitution has been able to last for 200 years despite massive changes in society.

Likewise, the Founders had the beautifully democratic insight to leave the document open in a very literal sense. The US Constitution is unfinished. It is open in the sense that it is still being written. The original founders devoted a rather large section of the document that has become fundamental law to describe the process of amending - or adding onto – the unfinished Constitution. This means that they left it up to us to find out for ourselves what the Constitution should say and how it should be applied. In a beautiful gesture of trust from one generation to the succeeding generations they asked us to take up the mantle where they left off and finish the work they began. We should continue to write their story as progress and democracy marches forward.

This openness and potential for new insight, is what Mormons should focus on when designating the Constitution as scripture. Otherwise you're stuck defending some of the uglier aspects of the original document - such as the designation of black slaves as counting for 3/5's a person for the purpose of the census, and other passages explicitly defending the institution of slavery. The spiritual significance of the US Constitution may be great, but those who voted for its passage in the spirit of progressing the vision of Democracy made a deal with the devil by compromising with the dominant power brokers in the South - the slavocracy. This compromise on justice and democracy came at an excruciating cost, and was ultimately paid for in blood and almost led to the undoing of the US Constitution. The original Constitution failed to deliver the promise of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" to the quarter of US people who were held in bondage in the South. Furthermore the original constitution failed to hold together a "more perfect Union" and was no longer operative during the period of Civil War between North and South.

However, to a great extent the spirit of Democracy has continued to lead the writing of this Document. Among the authorities of the US Constitution we can therefore also include Lincoln, who insisted on a "new birth of freedom" in the United States. The amendments to the Constitution are as important to the original document and contain new and dynamic insights that do not necessarily perfectly jive with the words of Madison, Jefferson and Franklin. Only by including the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th ammendments do we see the fullfilling of the democratic promise of universal suffrage. These words should be given the weight they deserve as scripture, and not disregarded from our understanding of the Constitution of the United States.

Future generations have continued to add to the Supreme Law of the Land. As LDS people, an open reading of the Constitution and search for new and possible additions to the document should make perfect sense - as it mirrors our search for personal revelation and continual inspiration. We don’t believe that the Lord has been silenced in regard to prophetic revelation – likewise I think the Lord still has something to tell us about Democracy and how to manage power in an increasingly large and diverse society. A closed and limited version of the constitution is an interpretation devoid of the spirit of inspiration. Likewise, it is silly to complain about the lack of spirituality in government, if mormons are not willing to take the possibility of contemporary political inspiration seriously. This is why I think mormons should adopt an open, and expansive, interpretive lens as to the understanding of the US Constitution as scripture.


  1. I'm so happy you're blogging more regularly, Zach. You're a brilliant guy and I'm lucky to be your friend.

  2. I agree that it was important to leave the constitution open for new amendments, it's also very important that it's not too changeable. If it can be openly interpreted and changed in any way the people desire it loses its effectiveness. The constitution was written around important principles that will always apply and any additions to the constitution should fall in line with those principles. Just as there are eternal principles taught in the scriptures and if we have personal interpretations that contradict those principles we know they can't be correct. Also just like the scriptures despite many people's different interpretations there is only one truth. If Mormons were to have too expansive a view of the scriptures then they would be just another protestant church.