As I was working on another post reference the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution, it got me to thinking about what people “think” is in our Constitution, but in reality, is not. Kind of what people think about the Bible and who wrote it and/or what it says. So the following is my collection of favorite misconceptions of what the Constitution says.
Let’s start with the biggie:
America is a Christian Nation (God and Religion).
In today’s highly volatile political environment we have seen the rise of political parties aligning themselves with various religious groups and pounding the drum that America is a Christian nation as our Founding Fathers intended in the Constitution. If this is true, all we have to do is read the Constitution and see how often the Founding Fathers used the words “God,” or “Creator,” or “Jesus,” or “Lord.” Except for one notable instance, however, none of these words ever appear in the Constitution, neither the original nor in any of the Amendments. The notable exception is found in the Signatory section referring to the date : “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.“ Obviously, the use of the word “Lord” here is not a religious reference, but the common way of expressing the date in those times. The lack of any these words does not mean that the Founding Fathers were not spiritual people, but that they believed the new government should not involve itself in matters of religion.
James Madison, the father of both the Constitution and the First Amendment, consistently warned against any attempt to blend endorsement of Christianity into the law of the new nation. And as president, John Adams signed (and the U.S. Senate approved) the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli, which reassured that Muslim nation that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Actually, religion makes only one direct and obvious appearance in the original Constitution that seems to point to a desire for some degree of religious freedom. That appearance is in Article 6, at the end of the third clause: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This statement is simple and straight-forward, and applies to all offices in the entire United States, both state and federal. The clause simply means that no public position can be required to be held by any one of any religious denomination.
“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”
This phrase is commonly attributed to the Constitution, but it comes from the Declaration of Independence. Seven simple words which put into law our inherited right to live, be free and be happy. But wait. The 5th Amendment does protect our rights to “life, liberty and property” but not happiness.
“Of the People, By the People, For the People”
This phrase is commonly attributed to the Constitution, but it comes from the Gettysburg Address.
There is no constitutional basis for the two-party system, it is just the way politics developed. Many of our founders didn’t even want political parties to arise at all.
Political parties are such a basic part of our political system today that many people might assume the Constitution must at least mention parties in one way or another… but there is absolutely no mention of political parties anywhere in the Constitution. Not until the Jackson and Van Buren administrations (1830’s) did organized parties really take hold in the American political system.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”
This phrase is commonly attributed to the Constitution, but it comes from the Declaration of Independence.
America is a Democracy
That’s right, democracy is actually unconstitutional within the great American democracy. In fact, the word “democracy” is never even mentioned in the Constitution. Technically speaking, the United States of America is a federal representative democratic republic, not a democracy. What’s more, although the States are allowed a fair deal of flexibility in how they conduct their affairs, changing their form of government is explicitly prohibited. Article 4, Section 4 of the Constitution contains the “Guarantee Clause,” which states that “the United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.” No, this doesn’t mean that Mitt Romney is automatically president (get it … Republican Form of Government), rather it means that the federal government shall ensure that all state governments function on the basis of electing individuals to represent constituents in a deliberative manner. Any other form of government, be it a direct democracy or a tyrannical dictatorship, are forbidden and the federal government has the power to prevent alternative forms of government from taking shape.
And finally, my favorite.
The Pledge of Allegiance
The Pledge of Allegiance of the United States is an expression of fealty to the federal flag and the republic of the United States of America, and formally adopted by Congress as the pledge in 1942. The official name of The Pledge of Allegiance was adopted in 1945.
The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by the socialist minister Francis Bellamy (1855-1931). It was originally published in The Youth’s Companion on September 8, 1892. Bellamy had hoped that the pledge would be used by citizens in any country.
In its original form it read:
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
In 1923, the words, “the Flag of the United States of America” were added. At this time it read:
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
In 1954, in response to the Communist threat of the times, President Eisenhower encouraged Congress to add the words “under God,” creating the 31-word pledge we say today. Bellamy’s daughter objected to this alteration. Today it reads:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
I hope you have enjoyed learning a little more about these common misconceptions of what the Constitution actually says or incorrect references to the Constitution as the source of popular comments.
Library of Congress (loc.gov)