Preserve, Protect, and Defend?

by COLONEL DAVID F. BEDEY (US ARMY, RET.) November 25, 2012

In January the President will stand before us, raise his right hand, and repeat the following words:

"I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.  So help me God."

Newly elected or re-elected Members of Congress recite a similar oath:

"I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.  So help me God."

This same oath is sworn by the Vice President, Cabinet secretaries, federal judges, and military officers, as they assume their offices.

Powerful words.

But what do they mean to those who swear these oaths-and to us who hear them being sworn?

A cynic might answer that such questions are irrelevant because oath taking has become a pro forma ritual, devoid of the power to bind one to doing one's duty.  For in a culture that rejects the existence of objective truth and belittles the notion of honor, how can an oath be anything more than a faint echo from a time beyond which we have progressed?

We can only hope that the cynics are wrong.

So let us proceed under the assumption that oath taking can at least have the potential effect of reminding public officials of the duty they owe their fellow citizens and likewise of establishing a fundamental standard to which citizens can hold public officials accountable.  An oath can serve these two purposes only if its meaning is unambiguous.  Therein lies our problem.

At the core of the President's oath is the duty to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."  Others swear to "support and defend the Constitution."  We hear spoken the word "Constitution," yet significant numbers of American citizens hold one of two irreconcilable understandings of its meaning.  On one side stand conservatives, on the other are the progressives.

Conservatives regard the Constitution to be a timeless statement of clear, self-evident principles for the establishment and maintenance of a stable, free society.  They endorse the Constitution's arduous amendment process as necessary to ensure that citizens are afforded an opportunity to participate in revisions to their governing compact.  The conservative sees the preservation of political and economic liberty and of equality before the law to be primary functions of government, and believes that the Constitution's explicit limitations on federal power promote these ends.

Progressives consider the Constitution, as written, to be an artifact that is only loosely relevant to today's circumstances.  They prefer to interpret it broadly, as an ever evolving "living" document, of which the meaning can only be revealed by an activist judiciary or an assertive executive branch.  Inherent to the progressive worldview is that equality before the law is insufficient.  Rather, the progressive's goal is to create equality of condition, which can only be accomplished through centralization of power at the federal level and administration by expert elites.

This rift is not the consequence of the recent election; it has been present for decades and has been widening at an ever faster pace.  Many have ignored its existence or sought to downplay its significance.

But it now appears that citizens in significant numbers have become conscious of the schism within the body politic.  Recently circulated petitions calling for various states to secede may amuse the bien pensants who inhabit our universities, the media, Hollywood, and the salons of Manhattan.  But as extreme as such expressions of discontent might seem to be, they ought to be taken as symptomatic of a growing awareness of the dissonance between the understanding of the Constitution espoused by progressives and that held by Americans who are of a conservative persuasion.

Common sense and experience reveal that agreements based upon misunderstandings-whether intentional or incidental-function poorly and seldom end well.  Vaguely worded business contracts fall apart.  So too do marriages when vows lose their meaning and force.  How long should we expect the compact that has bound us together as a people to continue to do so when we no longer can agree upon its meaning?

On Inauguration Day, President Obama will again swear to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."  He will see his charge one way.  Many others will see it differently.

Of all the challenges Americans face, this lack of accord on our foundational civic principles may well pose the greatest threat to our nation's survival.

Colonel David Bedey (US Army, ret.) served more than 30 years on active duty with the Army before retiring in July 2008. A veteran of the Persian Gulf War, his other assignments included tours of duty with combat engineer units in the United States and in Europe. He joined the senior faculty at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1996, where he served for 12 years as a professor of physics. At West Point he was deeply involved in Academy-level governance with an emphasis on curricular development and assessment. Colonel Bedey holds a Ph.D. in space physics from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and master's degrees in national security and strategic studies earned at both the Naval War College and the Army War College. He now lives in Montana where he writes on cultural issues.


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