Good news this week: after a difficult, expensive and often harrowing process, I had a successful interview with the American immigration service, so I am now a legal permanent resident of the USA (holding a “green card”). While we waited for the interview, I was reading my notes on James Doull‘s Philosophy and Freedom, and realized it had given me a much better understanding of the country in which I have settled.
One of the more curious features of American political conversation is Americans’ attitude toward their Constitution. In American politics, the Constitution is a scripture, a sacred text; and I do not mean this at all metaphorically or analogically. The Constitution literally is a scripture, for it has the most important hallmark that a scripture has: while the meaning of the text is endlessly debated, the text itself is universally regarded with great reverence and respect. Both of the warring sides of American politics accuse the other side of disrespecting the Constitution (the language used is typically stronger than “disrespecting,” often involving bodily functions of some variety). Some might argue that the Constitution is not a scripture because it is not “religious,” but this is already to beg the question; I have yet to find an adequate reason to distinguish between the “religious” and the “non-religious,” or reasonable way of classifying the two.
This attitude toward the Constitution has perplexed me since before I arrived in the country. Here questions of free speech – debated throughout the modern world – are referred to as “First Amendment questions,” as if free speech would somehow not be a meaningful or important concept if this constitutional amendment had not been passed. The text of the Constitution is often quoted as definitive – the idea that one might disagree with a document written by slaveholding white men sometimes does not seem to enter consideration. And strangest of all, American institutions sometimes legally require their members to “support and uphold” the Constitution. During grad school, while thinking toward a future in academia, I noticed that many American universities – in a holdover from the McCarthy era – require their professors to swear American loyalty oaths. But these oaths are declarations of support not for the American people, but for the Constitution – the usual language is that one promises to “support and uphold the Constitution of the United States.” (A similar promise is required when one becomes a citizen.) That language concerned me. I don’t believe that everyone should have a right to own guns, or that every state should have the same number of senators, as the Constitution provides. To me, the Constitution seems like a flawed document – as I think it does to many Americans who agree with me on these and similar issues. So could I really claim, on good conscience, to support it? My worries were not assuaged when I posted my concerns on an online forum for PhD students and a common response – from graduate students, perhaps the most left-wing segment of the entire American population – amounted to “If you don’t support the Constitution, then leave.”
Where is all this coming from? Why are Americans so ardently devoted to a document that, in many cases, they themselves disagree with in large part? Doull helped clear this up for me, through a few brief comments on Plato’s Politicus (Statesman). For Doull, and I think for Plato, a political community’s constitution is “its ideal ordering to the good.” A constitution is, in a sense, the Platonic idea of a political community and its state; a state’s constitution, by definition, is its essence, what makes that state what it is.
If we view constitutions in this Platonic or Doullian light, the strangeness of American political discourse gets displaced. It no longer seems strange that Americans would be passionately devoted to their constitution – for to be devoted to the American constitution is merely to be devoted to America. That attachment to a constitution is no more and no less than the nationalism that is found throughout the modern world. (Which, while curious in its own way, is nevertheless easily understood at a gut level for those who have grown up in that world.) To declare loyalty to the constitution of any country is just to declare loyalty to that country; it only makes sense that one seeking citizenship in a country would declare loyalty to its constitution. (Whether universities should require loyalty oaths of their employees is a very different, and tangential, issue.)
Instead, on a Doullian account, the real strangeness of the American system is that the Americans identify “the Constitution” with that written document, adopted in 1787 and infrequently modified. Properly considered, a constitution includes all of the most fundamental things that make a country what it is, throughout its history; there is much more to the constitution of the United States than the written document of “the Constitution.” I suspect it is no coincidence here that Doull, like me, is from Canada, where the idea of the Constitution is much more nebulous, referring to a much wider set of documents along with unwritten codes, traditions and history.
I have been wondering lately whether the American approach to the constitution derives from the role of conservative Protestants in the nation’s founding. For the idea of a constitution as a single and fixed written scripture would come naturally to those whose entire worldview is itself all about a different single and fixed written scripture. The role of the British Queen in Canadian politics bewilders my wife as much as the American Constitution bewilders me – how could the result of a significant political crisis be decided by a person whose job description is Queen’s representative? It seems to me that where the American constitution is Protestant, the Canadian constitution is Catholic: rather than a single written scripture which everybody respects even as they disagree over its content, Canada’s institutions are based on history, custom and tradition, all of which vest ultimate nominal authority in a single individual who commands a certain amount of respect, even as most members of the institution ignore that individual in all their everyday doings. Here I am turning to metaphor, to analogy rather than homology, for even though there are more Catholics than Protestants in Canada, almost half of them are anti-monarchist French Québécois. Still, the Christian sects seem helpful as a way of making sense of the two North American states, what they fundamentally are and how they work – which is to say, their constitutions.