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Breaking Secular Idols

The Economist has a very good piece on “The perils of constitution-worship”. It serves as a useful reminder to people like me who sometimes fall into that trap. In a college course I wrote a paper defending James Madison from all attacks – in retrospect I realize I can recognize his genius without making him infallible.

When history is turned into scripture and men into deities, truth is the victim. The framers were giants, visionaries and polymaths. But they were also aristocrats, creatures of their time fearful of what they considered the excessive democracy taking hold in the states in the 1780s. They did not believe that poor men, or any women, let alone slaves, should have the vote. Many of their decisions, such as giving every state two senators regardless of population, were the product not of Olympian sagacity but of grubby power-struggles and compromises—exactly the sort of backroom dealmaking, in fact, in which today’s Congress excels and which is now so much out of favour with the tea-partiers.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution still amaze me and deserve our respect. This isn’t an argument for casting them aside as of relics of dead white men. We must be on guard against calcifying unnecessary flaws into our political system. Ironically, the last thing the Founding Fathers would have wanted would be to have their words treated as sacred… not that what they wanted has to matter.

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