What is the role of faith in our democracy? For starters, freedom of religion is the first right enshrined in the First Amendment. While amendments are not listed in order of importance, it’s hard not to read something into that drafting choice. Yet constitutional meanings frequently play hide-and-go-seek with text. This is especially the case for religion, which is never defined in the Constitution.
Maybe the Founders’ generation assumed the meaning was self-evident. I would hope, however, that they knew there is little that is obvious or uncontested in religion. The etymology of the word itself suggests how difficult it is to define. Religion comes from the Latin term religio. The Latin phrase itself likely came from the root ligare, to bind. Joined with the prefix re-, religion is the process of “binding together again.”
The question is: what does religion bind together? Some believe it bound an individual to the discipline of moral discernment. It referred to epistemic responsibility, the responsibility to properly know what you know. A related but distinct interpretation was that it referred to the oaths taken by members of cults or religious orders. It emphasized the practical, ritual, and ecclesial dimensions of religious life. Over time, as religion started to assume more individualistic and mystical associations, the root was understood as referring to the re-connection between the human and the divine.
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Before our first class for Constitutional Law, our assignment was to read the Constitution in its entirety. As a recent business school graduate, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel and think of the United States as a business entity. Then, I started wondering, would the Constitution be its mission or vision statement?
In my operations and strategy courses at my undergraduate institution, we learned that a mission statement identifies an organization’s primary purpose for existing. For example, Google’s mission statement is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” On the other hand, a vision statement is a high-level statement of what the organization wants to achieve in the future. Following the previous example, Google’s vision statement is “to provide an important service to the world-instantly delivering relevant information on virtually any topic.”
Of course, I know it’s an immense oversimplification to analogize the nation to a business entity. Yet, I do find it an interesting exercise to explore whether the Constitution more establishes an identity for the country based on the framers’ perception – a more “mission statement” purpose – or whether it sets forth a foresight of what the country should aspire towards – a “vision statement” type of objective.
American legal history and culture distinguishes itself both by its respect for the Constitution and its eagerness to heatedly debate its interpretation. There are those who believe in a “living Constitution,” constructed by the Framers to be flexible and changing with the mores and demands of the progressing society it serves. Others are “textualists,” prominent among them the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who believe that the Framers designed the Constitution to be a stable bedrock of fundamental law with specific avenues for amendment, to serve as a foundation upon which legislative action can build a legal edifice. They see the Constitution as concrete in what it says, and wish to leave anything it does not say to the legislative authority of the Congress and States, rather than the courts.