A More Perfect Union
A Word in the Midst of this Moment
Many years ago I started keeping a small leather-bound copy of the United States Constitution within reach, usually on my desk. Despite those who argue with one another, touting one amendment of that section of the Constitution’s amendments we call “The Bill of Rights” over another, I have long favored the elegant Preamble to the Constitution because it sets forth the fundamental assumptions of the whole. You’ll remember it from grade school:
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Woven through the document are certain hard-won convictions that had been formed by American colonists under British rule, such as the reality that all values are relative and have to be negotiated and re-negotiated periodically in different historical situations (often in a process that is agonizing), and the distrust of vesting too much power in a single individual (the madness of King George III was just the tip of that iceberg!). Their experience as human beings and as students of faith and philosophy taught them the value of checks and balances to keep individuals from running rough shod over each other (thus three branches of government, a system that sometimes is at its best when each branch drives the other two a little nuts), the institutionalization of laws and justice so that everyone is subject to the law and no one is above it (a process predicated on the “presumption of innocence” inherited from English Common Law), and the resolve to hold in creative tension the rights of individuals (the one) with the needs and long-term interests of the whole society (the many).
It is an imperfect document, like any human endeavor. For a long time, it codified the repulsive idea that some Americans don’t count as much as others as human beings, and that voting should be restricted to only white men. And some of its best intentions turned out to have such disastrous consequences that “we the people” had to reverse course (Prohibition). And, yet, in times of national crisis and over the slow evolution of the Republic, it has provided a set of standards that have adapted enough to help salvage, secure and safeguard the rights of those it initially left out and it has been used to restrain many of the worst abuses of power and instances of corruption in our history. It even survived a civil war, coming out on the other side of that trial better and truer for it.
I firmly believe that every American should be well acquainted with our whole Constitution and not just with the Cliff Notes version of their favorite amendment from the Bill of Rights. And when we do we discover something profound about how difficult it is to be “a people” instead of just “people.”
The United States of America is not so much a place as an idea. And it is not a simple or an easy idea. It requires work. The United States of America is more a commitment than anything else. A nation of immigrants from around the world, for real success, this United States requires of us a conviction that many (pluribus) really can live as one (unum).
Some of my ancestors weren’t pleased at all with the arrival of others of my ancestors. That’s a historical fact. And some of my ancestors looked down on others of my ancestors for several generations. That’s also a fact. But, eventually, one of my ancestors found another of them attractive and trustworthy enough to marry, and so I exist. That’s a pretty typical American story.
Like any individual (and we Presbyterians have a leg up on understanding this), the American people are taught by our Constitution that the admission of guilt is healthy. It is part of loving our country to notice how and when we’ve gone wrong. When we examine ourselves carefully, we have a chance to confess, to repent, and to amend our ways. There’s nothing improper about self-examination as long as it provides a path to redemption.
The thing I love most about the Constitution, however, is in those opening words of the Preamble: “We the People of the Unites States, in order to form a more perfect Union.” Grammarians will quibble over whether the adjective is proper, but realistic folks know it must be. We work for “a more perfect Union” knowing our union will never be “perfect” enough.
“We the People” are being tested right now. But as we know, it is through testing that character is formed. Of course, it is through testing that faults also show. Stress-lines, fractures that threaten to widen into great gaps, also emerge in tests. But how else does character form? And if we can find it in us to dig deep into our own character, deep into our own commitments, deep into what we know to be true from the voices of the better angels of our souls, We the People will also come through this and will go on to form “a more perfect Union.”
You know that I am not a politician, I’m a preacher. I am not an idealist, I’m a realist. And I am certainly not a political scientist, I’m a theologian. But this I know: God loves variety. In fact, it seems to be his primary passion as Creator. For that reason, the United States really is exceptional in that it’s national covenant provides the framework for a country that is defined by its forging a common people from a variety of peoples. We are characterized as this “common people” by our commitment to our Union, to Justice for all, to domestic Tranquility, and the common Defense, to the general Welfare, and the Blessings of Liberty, and not by geographical features or borders (these have changed, mostly having grown, since our beginning), nor by the national origins, races or ethnicities of “the people” (these also have changed, by leaps and bounds, since our beginning).
Our freedom of religion has not been threatened by the pandemic or by the various public health guidelines we’ve needed to follow to help us stay healthy. Following Jesus is about far more than a weekly physical gathering inside a particular building. But our faith does face some real threats today, mostly from within us. So, strictly as a preacher, I’d just like to close by saying: A nation that lives by a creed of vengeance and violence will leave us all gumming our cornbread in the dark. Maybe Jesus’ followers have a special role to play in remembering, ourselves, just what it means to share the most perfect of unions.