Culture & Constitution

jefferson-hamiltonI go back and forth on whether or not I should do posts on the constitution, jurisprudence, SCOTUS rulings etc. The reason I go back and forth on this is because I don’t think a written constitution means anything if the unwritten constitution of the culture usurps the text and transforms it into something it was never meant to become. It is the unwritten constitution of culture that needs to be transformed before a truly cogent understanding of the written text can become meaningful in any objectively relevant manner.

I am convinced the founding era didn’t know exactly how cultural ramifications would influence the interpretation of the written text. A microcosm of this uncertainty can be found in the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton’s vision was more in line with a robust industrial economy, centralization as an embodiment of strengthened nationalism, and a “loose” constructive interpretative lens of the constitution in order to accomplish what he thought was best for a young America. Jefferson’s vision was more in line with a romantic agrarianism, decentralization to strengthen the individual and local communities, and a “strict” constructionist interpretative lens of the constitution in order to accomplish what he thought was best for a young America. These comparative descriptions are quite crude, and do not come close to specifically identifying the nuances of the Hamiltonian/Jeffersonian divide concerning political philosophy. To be sure, the divergent and competing political philosophies of these founding rivals does not suggest that their policy visions are what inexorably follow from their philosophical commitments. For now, I will ignore nuance to make a much broader point.

At first, Hamilton won many of these battles with Marshall at the helm of the Supreme Court. Following the collapse of the Federalist Party, a Jeffersonian perspective won other battles concerning culture and the constitution. Either way, the interpretation of the constitution was directly influenced by the cultural vision of those men in political positions able to shape the direction the country would take given early circumstances.

In order to appropriately offer arguments for a transformation of our cultural predicament, I must also make the constitutional arguments. Our identity as Americans is tightly wrapped in how we understand our culture and the constitution. Hence, to offer a compelling vision for American culture, one must also persuade their fellow citizens of its constitutionality. Moreover, if consistency is a virtue to be sought in critical thinking, we must be willing to properly recognize where amendments are needed rather than legislation.

Finally, we have to find the best interpretative philosophical lens for understanding the written text of the constitution. The necessity of interpretation forces us to enter into philosophical debates concerning competing views of jurisprudence, political philosophy, and legal reasoning.

Indeed, we do not need to look back to the founding era for rivalries to support my case; examples of this can be found in our own time. Rather than focusing on two individuals, we can look at two law firms seeking to shape our culture and constitution according to their vision of freedom, and human flourishing.

These law firms are:

  1. American Civil Liberties Union
  2. Alliance Defending Freedom

The ACLU could be fairly summarized as an organization guided by secular progressive values and interprets the constitution as a living document. The ADF could be fairly summarized as an organization guided by traditional values and interprets the constitution according to its original meaning.

Catholics must enter this discussion. Much is at stake, and the Catholic worldview has a unique perspective that may be able to untie many of the knots tightened in today’s ideologically driven culture war.


– Lucas G. Westman

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