MOORE COUNTY -- Three Motlow State Community College instructors marked the 220th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution on Monday, with one saying it is under attack and another saying that a new constitutional convention proposed in the 1980s would have been a good idea.
Legislation passed in 2005 requires any school receiving federal funds, grade school through college, to observe Constitution Day. Motlow, for the second year in a row, had faculty members Dr. Donald Cheatham, Dr. Jay Pilzer and Scott Cook lead a panel discussion about the document that guides America's civic life.
"As you can see, the Constitution is a living, breathing document," said Pilzer. But he said it may be at risk.
"My fear, and I come to you with great fear today, is that we're about to give it away," he said. " ... The real threat comes from ourselves."
Pilzer said there is widespread ignorance about the Constitution, which is part of what led Sen. Robert Byrd to sponsor the Constitution Day legislation two years ago, and Sen. Lamar Alexander to support it heavily. Pilzer said the state of ignorance which requires such a law is "surprising, amazing and sad."
Pilzer said 53 percent of Americans in a recent survey believe that the Constitution defines America as a Christian nation. Quite the contrary, he said. Although America was "fundamentally conceived in Protestantism," said Pilzer, and the founding fathers' ideas about the rights of man stemmed from religion, they took great pains to establish that the government would be secular and that religion would be a matter of individual conscience.
During the hotly contested 2000 presidential election, said Pilzer, he had to explain to many people what the Electoral College was and how it worked.
Pilzer also said indifference to the Constitution is a problem. He said the Constitution carefully balances legislative and executive power and criticized lawmakers for being too effusive about supporting the president rather than checking his authority.
"It is a balance of power," he said, "and that got lost."
Pilzer also said in recent years, too many Americans and their leaders have shown a willingness to abandon civil liberties for the sake of security or even convenience, citing the Bush administrations "warrantless wiretap" program as an example. Existing law allowed wiretapping but required that the executive branch ask for a court order within 24 hours afterward.
The warrantless wiretap program is presented as a defense against terrorism. Pilzer disputes whether removing judicial requirements will make anti-terrorism programs that much more effective. He said, however, that freedom has its costs, and if checks and balances are more cumbersome then that is the price that must be paid.
"Every amendment to our Constitution has a cost," said Pilzer. The Fourth Amendment limits on search and seizure have probably allowed guilty criminals to go free -- but they have also protected innocent people.
When there were no immediate questions following the panel discussion, Pilzer teasingly asked Cheatham -- with whom he disagreed at last year's forum over the issue of judicial interpretation -- if he wanted to say something in response to Pilzer's presentation.
"Something," quipped Cheatham, refusing to take Pilzer's bait.
During his own presentation, Cheatham discussed a 1987 effort to call a constitutional convention for the purpose of passing a balanced budget amendment.
The constitutional convention method, although provided for in the Constitution, has never been used to amend the document. Cheatham said opponents used "fear-mongering" to dissuade their fellow Americans from calling a convention.
That's nothing new; Cheatham said some of the arguments used against a Constitutional convention in the 1980s were the same arguments used against the convention which drafted the document in the first place. Patrick Henry, of "give me liberty or give me death" fame, refused to attend the original convention, saying he "smelled a rat."
But Cheatham said the constitutional convention method allows changes to come from the people, as opposed from the Congress.
Cheatham noted that any changes proposed by a constitutional convention would need to be ratified by three-fourths of the states, which he said would provide protection against extremist proposals from either the right or the left. Any such proposal would be unlikely to get the required majority.
Cheatham stressed that the Constitution is a living document and that the founding fathers knew it, allowing a method for future generations to revise their work. Some have said that the founding fathers didn't necessarily trust the great masses to do the right thing.
"They didn't trust anybody," said Cheatham, including themselves.
Cook was more explanatory than his colleagues, laying out some of the background which led to the Constitution. The loose Articles of Confederation were not working, as Cheatham had already noted, and the ineffectual response to Shay's Rebellion had convinced Americans that a stronger central government was needed.
Cook noted that the founders differed on what that government ought to look like. There was a Virginia plan, a New Jersey plan, a Connecticut plan, and plans favored by Charles Pinckney and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton's plan was similar to the British government -- too similar, it turned out, for the liking of his countrymen who had just thrown off British rule. Eventually, a carefully-crafted compromise was worked out -- for example, an upper house (the Senate) in which each state would have equal representation, with a lower house (the House of Representatives) where representation would be based on population.
Even after those compromises had been arrived at and a finished Constitution drawn up, some states refused to ratify it until it was agreed that there would be amendments guaranteeing fundamental freedoms to citizens. Those first 10 amendments are collectively known as the Bill of Rights.
The constitution was signed Sept. 17, 1787.