God Before Country: Why our Constitution is not “Perfect”

Many young cultural conservatives like myself love to acclaim the Constitution as the fundamental building block of our nation’s great social and political order. However, there is a point at which such exaltation goes too far. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, the American project is defined by a fusion of the “spirit of religion” with the “spirit of freedom.” If we forget to recognize the former disposition, we necessarily undermine our constitutional heritage.

Glorifying the Constitution has itself become a kind of religion for certain young conservatives who are not immune to the rising indifference toward traditional religious institutions in 21st century America. One should not allow a political document to take precedence over one’s religious beliefs, yet it seems to me that far too many young conservatives are doing just that.

I had a very explicit conversation about this subject with a friend and fellow congressional intern I lived with this summer in Washington, D.C. As we were discussing the general state of American politics one hot June evening, he commented that the Constitution is “basically perfect” and that only conservatives nowadays rightly recognize this reality. I was initially surprised by his use of the word “perfect,” and I genuinely believed he really meant a less superlative word such as “great” or “exceptional.”

However, as our discussion continued, my friend doubled down on his claim that our country has achieved a kind of perfection through the Constitution. In his view, the basic framework that it instituted (the system of checks and balances, the division of power between federal and state governments, and the individual liberties secured by the Constitution) is essentially unimprovable, give or take a few marginal difficulties, like slavery, which have already been remedied through amendment. In other words, to borrow from St. Anselm, my friend seemed to be saying that the Constitution is “that than which none greater can be thought.”

Perhaps it is the case that our Constitution is the best of all constitutions the world has ever known. Throughout its history, both the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom have flourished under the American constitutional regime. They are “intimately united,” as Tocqueville put it. For example, the First Amendment to the Constitution ensures that government cannot interfere with the natural human desire to freely worship God. Implicit in this amendment is the recognition that worshiping God is fundamentally an expression of human freedom.

However, what truly makes our national union “more perfect” is not a written political document, but a people who recognize that original sin renders us fundamentally imperfect beings. The Founders sensed this truth and drafted the Constitution to govern our flawed human nature.

Only God is totally perfect, as I explained to my friend. I could sense a clear disconnect between my own religious convictions and his essentially secular devotion to the Constitution. To him, nothing I could have said about our sinfulness and smallness relative to God would have seemed relevant to his claim about constitutional perfection.

With this in mind, I fear that young American conservatives do not truly comprehend the underlying basis of the Constitution they so often acclaim. Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles J. Chaput writes in his book Strangers in a Strange Land that “the American Constitution… was the work of men. The Founders saw it as foundational, but unavoidably imperfect.”

Simply put, the Constitution is not Scripture, a divinely-inspired, infallible text. Rather, it is a fully human document written by human beings who were influenced by ever-changing human circumstances. The Founders were creatures in time who understood that constitutional union would not be perfect and that “We the People” were ultimately responsible for implementing the Constitution’s ideals in the real world.

As John Adams once put it, “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” The Constitution is unfit for a people lacking these essential qualities.

The conservative American political creed used to be inseparable from actual religious creeds and their built-in recognition of human fallibility. Nowadays, “own the libs” is the all-too-ubiquitous creed of many Constitution-lovers my age who spend many more hours on Twitter than they do in church. This cry not only alienates large swaths of conservative Americans like myself who would rather convert those on the left than castigate them, but it also has nothing to do with the humble spirit of religion which individuals from Adams to Tocqueville to Chaput have recognized as the basis of our social and political order.

Placing one’s full faith in a temporal political document as an end in itself betrays the hopes of the Founders who, despite their motley religious backgrounds, believed that the United States could only be sustained by a people who revered God above all else, including their own human institutions. It would be a terrible mistake if my generation were to adopt my friend’s view that constitutional perfection is not only achievable in human terms, but that it has already been achieved in the form of the United States Constitution.

The Founders knew better than this.

The beauty of the Constitution lies not in perfection but in its excellent insight that human freedom is inherently linked to the desire for God. Government exists to protect Americans’ freedom to pursue this higher end.

Brennan Buhr is a junior from Albany, NY, studying political science, theology, and history. He makes somewhere in between 85% to 90% of his free throws on an average day. You can contact him at bbuhr@nd.edu.