Sehat (History/Georgia State Univ.; The Myth of American Religious Freedom, 2011) indicts the political ploy of invoking the Constitution to support projects from the sublime to the absurd.
It’s certainly not a new game. Even the Founding Fathers railed against those who “misinterpreted” what they wrote. Thomas Jefferson’s rhetorical posturing is often the preferred reference, particularly regarding states’ rights or first principles. Jefferson and James Madison’s strict constructionism fought Alexander Hamilton’s federalist policies in a struggle that made the period one of the most partisan in American history. The pragmatic Jefferson understood and adjusted his politics in the face of reality, and his compromises eventually produced a neo-federalism that included almost all of Hamilton’s proposals. The Constitution was indeterminate; the founders agreed on the wording but not necessarily on its many possible meanings. The author traces our history through the changing interpretations, including Henry Clay’s Missouri Compromise, his “Genuine American System” of cooperative economics and his efforts in the South Carolina nullification crisis of 1842. Up until the Civil War, nearly everyone cited the Constitution, as strict interpretations fought with adaptive, liberal ones. The founders were ignored after the Civil War through the Progressive Era, but the modern fight began in earnest with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the tumultuous 1960s and today’s tea party activism. Current obstructive politics have taken simple-minded rhetoric, paranoid behavior, and baseless propaganda to new and wholly unsubstantiated heights. A quote from Adam Kirsch in the New York Times pinpoints the author’s view: “To believe that American institutions were ever perfect…makes it too easy to believe that they are perfect now. Both assumptions…are sins against the true spirit of the Constitution, which demands that we keep reimagining our way to a more perfect union.”
Sehat ably shows how the exploitation of the founders debases political debate and neglects policy evaluation—required reading for those desperate for sane, intelligent political arguments.