The U.S. Constitution is a source of extreme pride and serious contention among Americans. The document is 225 years old, and its meaning is not always clear. With the passage of time, interpretation will become more difficult. The U.S. Supreme Court interprets the constitution but hears only about one percent of the cases that are submitted for interpretation each year.
According to Wikipedia and the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Christianity has splintered into about 41,000 denominations and derivations. Christianity has no Supreme Court to interpret the Christian bible.
Our constitution is meant to be a set of guiding principles by which we govern ourselves. But the world has changed more since the document was written than in all previous recorded human history. In addition to Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution, we can amend the Constitution, and we have done so 27 times. The Supreme Court sometimes reverses earlier decisions. In 1918, the Supreme Court held that Congress could not regulate child labor, but overturned that decision in 1941. Very probably, most of us now believe that children should be in school or on the playground, not working long hours in a hazardous factory.
Constitutional interpretation tends to reflect the times and conditions. Sometimes, we are not certain what the original constitutional draftsmen intended.
Section 8 of the Constitution says:
“The Congress shall have Power To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;”
The Second Amendment says:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Does that Constitutional language support a right for people to carry concealed weapons today? The issue is controversial. A Feb. 17, 2014, article in USA Today by Richard Wolf cites the following language from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals: “The Second Amendment does require that the states permit some form of carry for self-defense outside the home.” “States may not destroy the right to bear arms in public under the guise of regulating it.” Richard Wolf believes the issue will eventually be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The First Amendment, ratified in 1791, says:
“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”
In 2010, the Supreme Court held in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations or individuals who spend large sums of money to influence elections or public opinion are merely exercising their First Amendment rights. No one seriously believes that the men who wrote the First Amendment intended that spending money is a form of freedom of speech. But that is what it means today.
The Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that women have a constitutional right to abort a pregnancy. Neither child labor nor abortion is mentioned in the Constitution. Some of us believe that Supreme Court decisions should be limited to only matters specifically addressed in the Constitution. Some of us believe that flexible interpretation is essential.
In human affairs, contradictions are inevitable. For example, we maintain the world’s largest military arsenal, and we use it. One of the Ten Commandments is: “Thou shall not kill.” But very few American Christians are conscientious objectors.
The passage of time will make it ever more essential to amend the Constitution or to interpret it in accordance with the understanding of the era. Constitutional amendments and Supreme Court decisions allow us to be occasionally disgruntled but still united — not splintered into 41,000 factions.
Jack Stevenson is now retired. He served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA).