Holy books, constitutions share rigid DNA
The Bible and government constitutions share an important reality: Conservative proponents consider them sacred.
“Holy-book” purists, therefore, labor mightily to block any new interpretation or alteration deviating from the original document.
Take the South Dakota Senate State Affairs Committee, which seeks to make it harder for citizens to amend the state’s Constitution via ballot measures. Proposed amendments now require a simple majority at the polls to make them law, but the committee voted 6-2 on Monday to try and jack-up the threshold to 55 percent.
The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Bolin, said he designed it to be a “legitimate and desirable method of protecting our fundamental political document.”
“We believe that amending the constitution should not be a cakewalk,” Jim Hood, a South Dakota Retailers Association lobbyist told The Associated Press. “As history illustrates, once an idea is enshrined in our constitution, it is rarely repealed.” (italics mine)
Exactly. So, he’s arguing the rigid practice should continue not because it makes sense but because it’s what we’ve always done.
But why should we make it so hard in the first place to change even foundational documents? Historically, they routinely include stupid, even immoral ideas, contain articles and amendments that over time become flagrantly obsolete, and—perhaps most importantly—do not reflect the reality that societies are not inert. Communities and nations constantly evolve and change, as organic beings change. Fundamental assumptions and the documents that serve them should be able to change simultaneously.
Clearly, constitutions of any kind, because they are created by human beings, are far from infallible anyway and certainly should never be considered sacrosanct. The U.S. Constitution, for instance, once irrationally codified that the number of enslaved Negroes in a state were to be counted as only three-fifths the number of white inhabitants. This was agreed to in a formal compromise at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 for purposes of computing the number of representatives each state could seat in Congress.
Certainly, that despicable constitutional language was amended long ago but likely far later than it would have been if the document wasn’t made, by design, so maddeningly difficult to update.
Regarding the Bible, its deficits in reality are many and long recognized, not least the universally accepted biblical assumption deep into the Middle Ages that the sun orbited earth (not the other way around, which is the real truth). Literally centuries passed and much brutal ecclesiastic persecution of scientists before the church could (grudgingly and obliquely) accept this undeniable cosmic actuality.
Hopefully, it won’t take that long to update South Dakota’s Constitution. To be formally enacted into law, the proposed new 55-percent amendment-ratification threshold would need to be approved by voters at the polls. The currently legal simple majority is far more accommodating to reasonable change and should be maintained.
Encouragingly, there has been some opposition to this new measure, which ostensibly aims to protect the state’s Constitution but is really just an attempt to keep it hidebound. “Protecting the Constitution has a really feel-good ring to it,” said Rebecca Terk, a spokeswoman for Dakota Rural Action, “but South Dakotans are already doing a really good job of it.”
The genesis of this legislation was an unusually full slate of 10 proposed constitutional amendment in the state’s 2016 election. And most unnervingly for many Republicans, out-of-state groups poured millions of dollars into campaigns to curry public opinion in favor of the various measures. Outside money should not be a big problem if legislators believed that South Dakotans make responsible, reasoned decisions in voting, no matter where their information comes from.
Clearly, lawmakers supporting this new bill don’t trust voters to keep the Constitution inflexible. So, they want to arbitrarily make it harder to change it, by raising the percentage of ballots needed to approve amendments. The committee also favors increased financial reporting rules, which will add further obstacles to the amendment process.
Ironically, the measure is seen by opponents as damaging to freedoms specifically afforded by the state Constitution. Rob Tim, president and CEO of the Chiesman Center for Democracy, warned that the proposed legislation poses a “potential assault on our direct democracy.”
Indeed. The state Legislature after the 2016 election arbitrarily repealed an amendment initiative approved by voters to tighten rules governing government ethics. In other words, the governors overruled the governed. It certainly prevented a change in the Constitution but “disrespected the people’s voice,” lamented Democratic Sen. Reynold Nesiba.
So the impulse to keep sacred documents changeless continues in the 21st century. It’s already cost science centuries of progress by aggressively rejecting reality for millennia. Now it threatens to retard social progress.