Resources: Truth and Consequences
September 21, 2010
A Republic, If You Can Keep ItWhat You Need to Know about the Constitution
A Simple Question
Sometimes a simple question can reveal a lot about what a person thinks. A well-framed question can get under the surface to show where beliefs have taken a wrong turn, leading to faulty conclusions. A worldview approach to life’s key issues helps us know the right questions to ask in order to uncover where the wrong turn is taken and how to correct it.
Take, for example, this past spring when I was speaking to a class of seniors at a prestigious Christian high school on the west coast. Boy was I surprised when what I thought was a simple question lead to an hour-long discussion. The topic was politics. To start the class, I read from that morning’s paper a quote by President Obama from a speech given the night before. He said that the people of the United States expect politicians to solve their problems.
Then I asked a simple question, “Is that the proper role of government—to solve people’s problems?”
The whole class agreed it was. (I was hoping for at least one or two who disagreed, but no one spoke up.)
So I asked another simple question, “In order to find out whether politicians are suppose to solve our problems, we need to find out the kind of government we have in the United States. What is our form of government?”
They all answered that we live in a democracy. (Again, I was hoping for a few who knew the right answer, but I was disappointed a second time.)
At this point I had everyone stand and say with me the pledge to the flag of the United States of America. As I recited, “. . . and to the Democracy for which it stands . . .”, they all said “ . . . to the Republic . . . ,” so I stopped them and inquired, “What did you just say?”
“Republic” came the reply in unison.
“You mean we live in a Republic, not a Democracy?” The class acknowledged that our nation is, in fact, a Republic. I had everyone sit down.
I posed a third simple question, “What’s the difference between a Democracy and Republic?”
No one knew. NO ONE COULD TELL ME THE DIFFERENCE! Eighteen years old, prestigious Christian high school, and no one knew. I started to get weak in the knees; our best and brightest students do not understand the significance of our Republic.
“If you don’t know the difference between a Democracy and a Republic,” I spoke soberly, “please don’t vote in the next election because you have no idea what you are voting for.” I said this to grab their attention and then launched into a discussion of the differences.
The Prospects Get Worse
Recently, as I was sharing with a friend the above incident, my friend said, “I’m not sure I know the difference between a Republic and Democracy?”
Here’s a Christian man in his fifties, college educated, an entrepreneur who started his own successful company, politically conservative, reads books on American history and economics; yet he does not know how a Republic differs from a Democracy.
But there’s more. According to a 2008 survey, Americans do not fare well when it comes to a basic understanding of civic and political issues, scoring a mere 49 percent on a series of civic literacy questions. However, even more disconcerting, the survey shows that those who have held elective office earn an average score of 44 percent; five percentage points lower than those who have never been elected. Here are some of the details:
- 79 percent of those who have been elected to government office do not know the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion for the U.S.
- 30 percent do not know that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.
- 27 percent cannot name even one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
- 43 percent do not know what the Electoral College does. One in five thinks it either “trains those aspiring for higher political office” or “was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates.”
- 54 percent do not know the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Thirty-nine percent think that power belongs to the president, and 10% think it belongs to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
- 68 percent cannot properly define the free enterprise system.
It’s little wonder why our nation is racing toward Democratic Socialism; many adults, including elected officials, don’t understand the most fundamental things about how our federal government is designed to operate and what principles contribute to a just and prosperous economy.
A Republic, If You Can Keep It
The story is told by Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, that Benjamin Franklin, upon leaving Independence Hall on the final day of the convention was asked by a woman, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A Republic, Madame, if you can keep it.” What, then, is a Republic and how does it differ from a Democracy?
First of all, a Democracy is the “rule of the majority.” This form of government only works in a small geographical area with a limited number of people, becoming unwieldy as a nation grows numerically. This is one reason the founders of the United States deemed it inappropriate for a nation with the potential for numerical growth.
But aside from the impractical nature of a democracy, it invariably descends into a “mobocracy” (the rule of the mob), where the majority overruns the God-given rights of the minority. Even in the early Greek city-states, democracy led more often to despotic rulers and tyranny.
What’s more, in a Democracy the majority may change their minds on a whim, resulting in social instability. This is what the business community is currently experiencing because Congress keeps toying with what to do about the corporate and personal tax structure, leaving business owners uncertain about how to plan for the future. This uncertainty is a major reason many businesses are not hiring new workers.
On the other hand, a Republic is designed around the twin principles of representative government and the “rule of law.” A representative government allows an expanding nation to continue running smoothly and provides direct accountability to the people.
The rule of law means there are enduring laws—unchanging principles—guiding the deliberations and actions of elected officials. This results in a stable society where people know and understand the rules and know what to count on in the future. Also, laws flow out of an understanding of the “laws of nature,” which find their ultimate source in God’s moral law. Again, this provides a stable foundation for establishing and securing the unalienable rights of the people, such as life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
The U.S. Constitution: Foundation of Freedom
To keep our Republic from degrading into Democratic Socialism, where democratically elected politicians use their power to control large portions of the economy and our personal lives, we must know what is in the Constitution and hold our representatives accountable to those principles. Freedom is a fragile thing and can easily be taken away, even by well-meaning politicians. That is why a written Constitution acts as a covenant between citizens and their representatives and a means for holding elected officials accountable to maintain the unalienable rights of the people.
The U.S. Constitution lays out practical concerns of how the government is to be organized and selected. It also lists 18 areas of jurisdiction the people have given to Federal officials as their areas of responsibility. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution lists such responsibilities as establishing a national defense and a Federal judiciary; it includes several practical matters like standardizing the national coinage, weights and measures, establishing a national postal system (including postal roads), and issuing patents. THAT’S IT! It’s not long or complicated. It is very simple, clear, and to the point.
The focus of the Constitution is specifically to limit the scope of what Federal office holders can do in relation to the state governments and the God-given rights of the people. This limiting factor is reinforced in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) with the tenth amendment stating, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
But What About…
There are two main objections heard today whenever someone appeals to Constitutional authority for limiting the power and scope of the Federal government. First, some will counter, “But what about the ‘general welfare’ clause in the Constitution. For example, in the Preamble we find the purpose of the Constitution is to, among other things, “promote the general welfare.” Is this clause a “blank check,” giving Federal politicians freedom to do whatever they feel is in the national public interest, whether it is government works programs, Welfare, Medicare, or mandating a minimum wage or medical coverage, as long as it promotes the general welfare of the people of the United States?
Actually, the general welfare clause is not a blank check. This is a gross misinterpretation of what the Constitution says and what the founders intended. For example, Thomas Jefferson succinctly put it this way, "Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated." In other words, the “general welfare” clauses must be read in light of the context of the eighteen items listed as the only responsibility of the president and congress. This point was elaborated on using the illustration of nationalizing healthcare in the 2010-02 issue of Truth and Consequences.
A second objection given when the Constitution is brought up is that it is a “living document.” We hear that the founders framed the Constitution over 200 years ago and could not have anticipated all the changes in our nation and the world over the past 200 years. The problem comes when lawmakers use this ruse so they can interpret the Constitution any way they wish to get around the plain meaning of the text and its purpose to limit the power of the Federal government.
Instead, the framers provided a way to change the Constitution through the amendment process. The Constitution is “living” in the sense that it can be amended, but the process is designed to be long and arduous since rapid changes in the law produce social uncertainty. The founders understood that people need a stable society where change is slow and methodical. And before the Federal government is given any more authority to act, three-fourths of the States must agree to it. This provides a safeguard to keep the national government from usurping too much power.
What will it take to keep our Republic, considering the ground that has been lost over the past 90 years? At a minimum, it will take citizens who understand how our federal system is designed to work with different layers of government and the specific design of our National government. One way of doing that is to recognize “Constitution Week.” The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) started the tradition of celebrating Constitution Week many years ago. In 1955, the DAR petitioned Congress to set aside September 17–23 annually to be dedicated for the observance of Constitution Week. The resolution was later adopted by the U.S. Congress and signed into Public Law #915, in 1956, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Since 2002 a provision in the federal-spending bill, Public Law 108-447, directs all educational institutions (elementary, secondary and college) that receive federal dollars to offer students instruction on the U.S. Constitution each September 17, Constitution Day.
Let’s all do our part in reminding ourselves and our fellow Americans of the uniqueness of . . . the freedoms afforded by . . . the power and wisdom that is . . . the U. S. Constitution.
What You Can Do
A friend, Katie Hatchett, offers several suggestions for what you can do for Constitution Week September 17–23. Here are some of her suggestions:
- Pray for our nation.
- Fly your American flag.
- Read the Preamble to the Constitution.
- Check with schools to make sure Constitution Day is being observed.