The Unchanging Constitution

edit: Just a quick clarification here… this post is a response to a conversation where the other party was using the language of the Constitution as a reason for denying government-funded contraception and other healthcare to US citizens. Apparently, anything that is not a right “endowed by our Creator”, is not a right that can be granted by the government either, therefore the government has no business in providing healthcare – even if it benefits the country as a whole.

I have noticed recently that the Constitution is being treated and talked about with a reverence usually only reserved for the Bible (or Koran, if you prefer). Yes it is a document of great importance and contains many principles that we still hold true to this day, but that does not necessarily mean that the Founding Fathers were seers, capable of looking 300 years into the future to ensure the continued relevance of the document.

The interesting thing about the Bible, is that it was written 2,000 years ago by people with a very limited worldview. (I will discard the notion that it is actually the written Word of God as transcribed by mortal men, since there are numerous very good reasons why it is not).  These men had no concept of anything that modern science takes for granted, ranging from a spherical earth orbiting the sun to microscopic bacteria being the cause of plagues. They wrote about the world as they percieved it then, not as it would become 2,000 years in the future.

As an atheist, the most disturbing part of all this, is not that the book is still read, or even that people believe the stories contained within. No, the worst part is that people still believe it is relevant today. Large swathes of it have been discarded as ancient history and allegory, from the numerous laws on the proper aquisition and treatment of slaves to the consumption of shellfish, or the sin of mixing plants in the same field to capital punishment for apostasy. And yet people still cling to a few tales in the book as timeless examples of Gods Word. Certainly, given a collection of books as large as the Bible, you are statistically very likely to find a few that stand the test of time, but you cannot then tout them as evidence that the entire Bible is full of modern wisdom.

So, we return to the Constitution of the United States of America and its apparent similarities to the Bible. It is a historical document written by mortal men, that reflects the worldview of the time and place of those who wrote it. As much as we would like to imagine that the Founding Fathers were truly timeless visionaries, they simply cannot have known what civilization would look like in 2012. They could not possibly have dreamt of the internal combustion engine, electricity, powered flight, computers, the internet, gay marriage, men on the moon and so on. It is a world that would be quite alien to them.

However, in their wisdom, they did allow for amendments to be made to the Constitution. In this regard, they were a step ahead of the authors of the Bible, who insisted that the Bible was the unchanging Word of God. Instead, they realized that they needed to make provisions for whatever societal changes may occur in an unforseen future.

But what appears to be happening in America today, is that the Constitution is being treated as an unchangeable – indeed almost holy – document, with the same gravitas normally associated with the Bible. And I believe this is a terrible mistake.

Not only does this mindset shackle us to the current incarnation of the Constitution and its amendments, but it actively prevents any forward progress in society. Surely, the Constitution should reflect the will of the people now, not as it was hundreds of years ago? Obviously amendments have been added over the years, such as womens suffrage and the abolition of slavery, and society has benefited greatly from these advances.

Now don’t get me wrong,  I’m not for a moment suggesting that we throw out the Constitution and do as we please. Not for a second. But what I am suggesting is that perhaps the responsibility of government goes a little beyond the word-for-word interpretation of collecting taxes and managing the military. Perhaps, just perhaps, the government is also responsible for the general welfare of the country.

And if that is the case, then surely the ultimate goal in the direction of “general welfare of the union” would be a system of socialized healthcare, similar to those that exist in most other first-world, civilized countries. The government is not an evil oppressor bent on stripping you of your rights, but a system that is in place to aid and assist its citizens when they need it most. This change of mindset will not take place overnight, but in small incremental steps.

Free contraception for women is a quantum leap in the right direction. A direction in which government is seen as caring for its citizens, instead of watching as one after another family files bankruptcy in the face of crippling healthcare bills.

I understand that no-one really wants to pay for things for other people’s use, especially if you find these things to be distasteful. Personally, I don’t much like my taxes funding arguably unnecessary wars, but as a citizen it is my duty to pay taxes. Similarly, as a tax-paying citizen I am able to use facilities such as emergency services, 911 calls, roads, libraries, parks and so forth that everybody collectively pays for. I cannot remember the last time I visited a public library, but I am not about to campaign for its removal, to the detriment of other citizens that do use it.

If paying for a public library that I do not use is “socialism”, then so be it. Similarly, if paying for womens contraception that I do not use, is “socialism” – then I am damn proud to be a Socialist. I would far rather my tax dollars went towards providing a healthcare safety-net and quality education for anyone and everyone, than for funding yet another war or paying for a Wall Street executives golden parachute.

The constitution can be amended – who knows what it will look like after 2,000 years? Hopefully it will be able to keep up with progress, lest it risk becoming as obsolete and irrelevant as the Bible, used only as a metaphorical cudgel to beat down those wishing for something better…

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