So how do we make the Constitution relevant to our daily lives? How do we connect to the Constitution?
Here are five simple suggestions.
1. Read the Constitution.
Every citizen should read the Constitution at regular intervals. You might even be surprised at what makes it into this original founding document. In addition to addressing the macro issues of structuring the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches, it also provides for the more micro issues like granting Congress the power to coin money, establish post offices, and protect copyrights. The language is, to be sure, old-fashioned, but the choices made in defining the role of the federal government are as relevant today as they were centuries ago. Even more revealing may be how words or clauses have taken on meanings of their own. Many of the most well-known phrases “free exercise [of religion],” “due process of law,” or “cruel and unusual punishments,” exist as fundamental commands without agreed upon understandings. These words have evolved, but to understand and debate their meanings, both conservative “originalists” and progressives who believe in a “living Constitution,” must begin with the text.
2. Remember all that boring stuff like voting?
Today, our national voting rate hovers around 50%. Courts have cancelled trials because too few jurors showed up. Citizens are turning their backs on running for elective office.
All new citizens swear an oath “to support and defend the Constitution.” That means not only bravely defending its principles from attack, but, more concretely, maintaining the institutions of government from neglect. Citizens must see that the daily, mundane maintenance of the Constitution is just as important as any grander defense of it.
3. Find constitutional heroes.
Constitutional principles exist on paper. Constitutional rights and responsibilities exist in practice. In every community, in every era, there have been individuals who have witnessed constitutional wrongs and fought for constitutional change. While the Founding Fathers are obvious constitutional heroes, there exist more ordinary and contemporary examples. Individuals like thirteen year old Mary Beth Tinker who went to school with a black armband to protest the Vietnam War (and was promptly kicked out of school setting off a First Amendment challenge). Or Daisy Bates, who defied a history of racism by walking the “Little Rock Nine” students into a segregated school, thus setting off a case that would go to the Supreme Court. In fact, most of the famous cases that end up in the Supreme Court started out with ordinary people, with extra-ordinary problems.
4. Don’t forget to give the Constitution some credit in your daily life.
Constitutional principles are built into the fabric of daily life. But, many times we miss seeing their connection to the Constitution. From the eccentric “prophet” shouting in a city park, to town hall meetings, or the publication of your favorite on-line magazine (like the one you are reading), the First Amendment ensures freedom of speech. Personal freedoms from how you educate your children, to birth control, to the security you feel in your homes rest on constitutional principles. The rule of law that structures almost every aspect of our lives – from criminal codes to capital punishment – finds its development and enforcement in the institutions created by the Constitution. The key, of course, is to re-imagine these ordinary parts of our lives as actually connected to our constitutional system.