If Americans would celebrate Constitution Day with as much fervor and excitement as we do the Fourth of July—perhaps then we would know what’s in the document.
But although September 17, (the date the United States Constitution was signed in 1787), is now officially designated as “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day,” it is not celebrated with back-yard bar-b-ques and fireworks. Instead, government schools are supposed teach lessons on the history of the U.S. Constitution. That’s not likely to generate much excitement.
If we start learning what’s in the Constitution, maybe then we'll require our elected officials to abide by it. But at present, as economist Walter Williams says in his book, Do the Right Thing: “Much of what federal, state, and local governments do today far exceeds constitutional authority and any reasonable definition of moral government.”
Williams says, “Our federal government is increasingly becoming destructive of the ends it was created to serve. Constitutional principles and rule of law are alien values in today’s America.”
These are strong words. Is the rule of law “alien?” Have we forsaken the fundamental principles of the Constitution?
For sure, one of the principles that is routinely ignored is that of “limited government.” In the past four years, government is the only economic sector that has grown. According to Veronique de Rugy, (NationalReviewOnline 2/28/2010) the Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed that during the recession, the federal workforce had grown by 98,000 jobs, state employment grew by 42,000 employees. By contrast, the total private sector lost 7.2 million jobs.
Why should we worry about “big government?” Some have recently argued that government is the only thing that unites us—the only thing “we all belong to.” So what’s the problem with government growing in power and size, if we all “belong” to it?
Well, for one thing, that’s not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they designed a federal republic. They strictly limited the powers of the central government and balanced them with the full plenary powers of the state governments.
Historian Timothy D. Johnson claims that what animated the founders’ efforts in writing the Constitution was their desire to find a way to “bind the government so as to keep it under control.”
“One must remember that the Constitution was written to govern government, not people,” says Johnson. The Constitution is “…the safeguard that keeps government in its proper sphere so that individual liberty will not be threatened. In other words, the constitution was actually written to defend people from government. That is why so much of the constitution was written in the negative, telling government what it may not do.”
For example, a correct reading of the First Amendment puts the emphasis on the negative restrictions on Congress, not Christians: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
One of the chief purposes and intents of the Constitution is to keep government within its proper sphere. The legitimate role of civil government, as ordained by God, is to punish evil and encourage good. Yet now the federal government—and even some state and local governments—is stepping outside of that sphere and interfering with the spheres of the family, the church, and economic enterprise.
The Health and Human Services mandate requiring religious institutions and businesses to purchase health insurance that covers abortifacients, contraception, and sterilization is another example of government overstepping its legitimate role and authority in society. When the government penalizes its citizens for adhering to their religious beliefs, it is establishing itself as the arbiter of moral guidance. In effect it is taking the place of God in people’s lives. This is clearly “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.
As Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in National Review (9/10/2012), “The Constitution has been imperfectly honored through most of our history, and there is no fool proof mechanism imaginable for enforcing it.”
Nevertheless, the more informed and knowledgeable American citizens are of the Constitution, the greater the likelihood that they will vote out of office those politicians who push its limits and attempt to usurp powers not formally given to them or to government under it.
For not only did the Constitution limit the powers of the federal government, it also established the principle that government is by the consent of the governed. This principle is founded in the fact that, as image bearers of God, we are by nature governing creatures.Just as our Creator governs His creation, so we reflect His attributes and govern those areas under our authority. Therefore, the authority of governments is delegated and derived authority—it is not inherent or intrinsic. As James Madison wrote in Federalist #49, “[T]he people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived.”
Isn’t it time we take back our Constitutional powers as “we the people?” Isn’t it time we vote out of office those who would place themselves above the Constitution—those who act as if they have the power to determine our rights and freedoms—those who have forgotten that they govern only by the consent of the governed?