A Constitution, If You Can Keep It

What makes America exceptional—different from other nations—is that our nation’s strength and unity are not based on blood and soil or throne and altar. America is a racially, ethnically, religiously, and culturally pluralistic nation. It is more pluralistic today in these respects than ever before, but it was always pluralistic. What is it, then, that binds Americans together? What makes us a people—a nation, despite our differences? How does the pluribus become an unum?

What unites us as Americans is, or at least traditionally has been, a shared commitment to a moral-political creed—a set of ideals and principles, those of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

It is true, of course, that we have struggled—even fought an almost unimaginably bloody civil war—to live up to our nation’s ideals and principles, and we know that as imperfect human beings we can never realize them perfectly. Still, it has been a shared commitment to those ideals and principles, and a shared aspiration to embody them in our laws and policies as fully as we can, that has bound us together, striving to be “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

No matter the color of their skin, the homeland of their ancestors, or the religious doctrines to which they subscribe, Americans can hold, and have held, that “all men are created equal”; that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”; that there are no natural superiors and inferiors among human beings; that all citizens have a right to participate, and to do so on terms of equality, in our republican civic order; that the national government should be one of delegated and enumerated (and therefore limited) powers, not of general jurisdiction; that the states should possess and exercise “police powers” subject to prohibitions and limitations of the Constitution; that there should be a separation of the powers of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, allowing these branches to function independently; that fundamental civil liberties—freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly—and principles of due process and equal protection should be strictly protected.

That’s why one needn’t be born an American to become an American. Men, women, and children who come to this country as immigrants, who enter lawfully, who aspire to citizenship, who fulfill the requirements for attaining it, and who swear their allegiance to the nation’s Constitution and laws become—fully—Americans. Newly naturalized citizens are as fully American as their fellow citizens whose ancestors arrived on these shores on the Mayflower in November of 1620.

In a very deep sense, then, the Constitution of the United States is a principle—or a set of principles—of national unity. The Constitution unifies Americans. Indeed, it constitutes us as a people. It plays a unifying and constituting role that is more profound than the role played, for example, by the very real, albeit unwritten, British constitution.

What do we make, then, of the fact of our current national disunity? We are, by every reasonable indicator, a deeply polarized—one might say fractured—nation. Americans disagree on momentous issues. What’s more, it seems to be increasingly true that Americans on the competing sides (progressives, for example, and MAGA populists) view those of their fellow citizens who do not share their beliefs and commitments as enemies to be defeated—even destroyed—not as civic friends, bound together despite their differences of opinion by what Lincoln, in an earlier era of profound disunity, called “bonds of affection.”

Has the Constitution failed—failed, that is, in its fundamental unifying function? After all, a great many of our deepest differences are, or are at least presented as being, differences over the interpretation and meaning of the Constitution itself. How can we be unified by a charter whose meaning and requirements we cannot agree about? If we are divided and indeed polarized at the constitutional level, what good is the Constitution? If we do not agree on our fundamental moral-political commitments, then so much for the basic creed that, in the absence of bonds of ethnicity, religion, and the like, is supposed to unite us as “one Nation.”

Enter Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute, himself a naturalized American citizen and one of America’s premier thinkers on issues of ethics, culture, and, especially, civic life. Reflecting on his own experience, and the experience of those like him who over the decades and now centuries have “signed up” to become Americans, Dr. Levin proposes that the Constitution can once again unify us—but only if we think more carefully, rigorously, and non-ideologically about what the Constitution is and what it was designed to do.

Levin does not hide his own political opinions. He is “a conservative, and not a bashful or half-hearted one.” (Full disclosure: Me too.) But his proposal is one that makes demands on his (and our) fellow conservatives, just as it makes demands on liberals and progressives. All of us must lay aside political and ideological partisanship—not across the board, but when it comes to understanding and honoring the Constitution and its principles. We all must understand the basic constitutional rules and resolve to live by them. In the rough and tumble of politics, sometimes we’ll win but sometimes we’ll lose; we must, however, regard constitutional principles as sacrosanct, even when that means accepting political defeats. And we must avoid the temptation to hijack or manipulate the Constitution to guarantee ourselves victories.

American Covenant is prophetic. I say that not because Levin warns of a coming catastrophe—though we’re heading for one if we don’t do something about our national fragmentation—but rather because he is calling us to a renewed fidelity to our Founding principles. It is worth our recovering and rededicating ourselves to those principles, according to Levin, not because they are ours, but because they are good and true. They promise not only to reunite us, but to reunite us in a project and indeed a cause—that of constitutional republican government—that is worthy, indeed noble.

If we were to heed Yuval Levin’s wisdom, we would understand our Constitution (both the written document and the larger system of which the institutions established by the document are central and integral parts) not as a “contract”—an agreement struck by parties bargaining in their self-interest, aiming for as good a deal from the other guy as we can get—or even a “social compact,” but as a covenant, that is a shared commitment and pledge of cooperation and unity reflecting common understandings of what, at the most fundamental level, is true and good, right and just.

This covenantal understanding would enable us to embrace and honor our Constitution as a framework (or, as Levin explains, an integrated set of frameworks) that enables us to engage each other constructively when we disagree and manage our disagreements, even when it comes to issues on which passions run high, in ways that don’t tear us apart. Can there be a cause more urgent than that one for Americans today?

American Covenant: How the Constitution Unified Our Nation―and Could Again
by Yuval Levin
Basic Books, 368 pp., $32

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.

Original News Source – Washington Free Beacon

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