To Kill and Die for the Constitution: How Devotion to the Constitution Leads to Violence
47 Pages Posted: 28 Feb 2015
Date Written: February 26, 2015
From an early age, Americans are taught that what unites us as a nation is a shared commitment to ideals found in the Constitution. This prevailing conception of American nationalism, which I refer to as constitutional nationalism, provides a comforting, even inspiring ideal of national identity. Presidents have frequently invoked it in inaugural addresses, asserting that the national community is united by commitment to universal ideals, avoiding the irrational hatred and bigotry associated with racial, religion, and ethnic forms of nationalism.
But there is another side of constitutional nationalism. Several recent political movements, including the Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s and 1980s and the militia movement of the 1990s, have justified anti-government violence in the name of constitutional devotion. Supporters of these movements asserted that the nation has become unmoored from the Constitution, the federal government is controlled by un-American elites who seek to undermine fundamental American values, and the Constitution can only be restored through force. The same insurrectionary spirit was on display in the April 2014 confrontation at Bundy Ranch, Nevada, in which rancher Cliven Bundy led over 1000 armed protesters against the federal government. “We’re standing up for the Constitution,” Bundy declared, “We’re going to take this country back by force.”
Is there a connection between the routine expressions of constitutional devotion in everyday American life and the sporadic violence perpetrated by extremists in the name of the Constitution? The two phenomena may appear independent, perhaps even oppositional — the former points to the Constitution to draw the nation together in patriotic unity, while the latter points to the Constitution to justify violence against fellow citizens. This Article argues, however, that they are simply two sides of the same coin. The same ideology that teaches Americans to love the Constitution, to revere it as the nation’s central, sacred text, also leads logically, perhaps inevitably, to violence and murder in the name of the Constitution. The ideology of constitutional nationalism has long provided a neutral, patriotic language to express restrictive ideas about who is and who is not a real American. It is an ideology that can make the call for violence and murder in the name of the Constitution sound like the most patriotic acts imaginable.
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