CSUN held an event to celebrate and discuss Constitution Day at the Sierra Center on Saturday to help inform people about the U.S. Constitution.
Among those in attendance who were asked to devote more thought to the purpose of the Constitution were CSUN students, faculty members and instructors from other schools. Laid out on tables were decorative copies of the Constitution. The event attracted many people, so some attendees were sitting on the floor or standing in the back of the room.
The panelists were CSUN professor James Sefton of the history department and political science professor Christopher Shortell. The topics of the discussion included the Constitution itself and how it helped shape American identity. Both the panelists shared their views on why it’s important to study the Constitution in the first place.
“The study of the Constitution is a study of how successive generations of Americans thought and acted about the problems that they faced,” Sefton said.
Sefton said one factor in finding a collective identity in the Constitution is in something he called “conservative process,” which is Americans’ ability to adapt the Constitution by either adding or removing things depending on whether or not they worked.
“I think that being aware of, thinking about, and engaging the Constitution is one of our core responsibilities as citizens,” said Shortell. “The more we do that, the better the system we will have. It’ll be one more reflective of the population and will have greater acceptance among the population.”
Matt Liff, 22, a student at College of the Canyons, attended the Constitution Day event because extra credit was offered for his political science class.
“I thought the presentation was really informative,” Liff said. “It was a discussion you wouldn’t get in most lectures.”
Throughout the presentation, both panelists emphasized the importance of being aware of what the Constitution upholds. Shortell said that it is essential to remember that the Constitution is a political document, and not necessarily a moral or ethical guideline for a society. According to Shortell, bringing moral debates into the Constitution limits its ability to serve all citizens of the United States, therefore risking a decline in overall support for the Constitution.
“The first purpose of the Constitution is to serve as a government document, as a political guide,” said Shortell. “It’s really, as designed, ill suited to provide conclusive answers to debates about morality.”
An example of this conflict between the Constitution and American moral issues was the 18th Amendment, which forbid the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol. According to Shortell, the prohibition of alcohol in 1919 had led to widespread lawbreaking and an increase in organized crime. In 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment and legalized alcohol consumption in the U.S.
“This episode makes an excellent case study for the ways in which a particular type of social morality and the Constitution don’t sit well with one another,” said Shortell. “Prohibition was an attempt at a specific moral view in the Constitution, and I think we can safely say that it failed pretty miserably in that respect.”
Sefton expressed the same point of view between morality and the Constitution.
“Except for the issue of slavery,” said Sefton, “the attempted constitutional amendments that deal with moral issues often fail. They don’t make it.”
Although slavery has not been a moral issue for some time in this country, there are other issues that are highly debated, such as same sex marriages. According to Shortell, moral issues, such as an attempt to ratify an amendment to ban same sex marriages, are in a sense doomed to fail. He also mentioned that specific moral values such as an opposition to same sex marriages just weren’t part of the original equation to the Constitution.
“It’s not that the Constitution falls down on one side or the other of the debate,” Shortell said. “It is that it cannot be simply made to contain specific moral values and remain an effective governing document.”
One of the reasons that the Constitution has survived throughout the years is its ability to adapt to the society it serves.
“There is no question that the interpretation of the Constitution is constantly changing in a changing society,” said Shortell. “The original Constitution was written for a primarily agrarian society with a population smaller than Los Angeles.?The world today is a very different world.”?
“There is also good evidence that the framers were open to the idea that the Constitution could be interpreted differently, within reason, by different generations.”
“I think that Constitution Day is an opportunity for students and members of the surrounding community to consider the Constitution in a more thoughtful way than we normally do,” said Shortell.?”Familiarizing yourself with the foundational governing document of our country forces you to think more clearly and more critically about the way our political system operates.”
Do you have more to say than a comment? Want any feedback from the writer? Story ideas? Head to The Gripevine.