SEPTEMBER 11, 2003
Not prone to patriotic sentiment, I was surprised to be nearly moved to tears when I first visited the new National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The museum, located on the Independence Mall near the Liberty Bell and dedicated on the 4th of July, communicates both the promise and fragility of U.S. institutions. Religious traditions are all but absent from the Center's exhibits, but a secular faith in "we, the people" infuses the place. From the Indiana limestone that makes up its monumental exterior to the surprisingly intimate exhibits, the museum inspires awe at the fragile rule of law, while it also invites all visitors to participate in and observe rituals of republican faith.
The tour begins with "Freedom Rising," a multimedia theater-in-the-round presentation that recounts the history and controversies surrounding the framing, ratification, and development of the Constitution. The roughly fifteen-minute show takes its title from Benjamin Franklin, the octogenarian framer of the Constitution who wondered whether the sun carved on the back of George Washington's chair signified the "rising" or "setting" of American freedom. The show answers, with Franklin, that freedom is indeed rising. But it also points to enough conflict and contradiction in the American past and present to leave the participant with a healthy sense of freedom's fragility.
This was particularly underscored on one of my visits (we hosted many out-of-town guests this summer) when an African-American male served as the host. He suffered from a limp and, as he climbed the stairs of the theater, seemed to incarnate the stony road his people trod in search of liberty. The narration he shared -- identical on all of my visits -- explicitly raised the issue of slavery. It pointed out how the framers, while trying to avoid the issue in the document, only managed to postpone, if not exacerbate, the tensions that resulted in the Civil War.
This emphasis on the difficult and complex human course of freedom is consistent throughout the exhibits of the Center, which continue in a circular hallway called "The American Experience." The chronologically organized exhibits in this hall are almost all "hands-on," and many of them highlight the exclusions, compromises, and debates through which the Constitution has taken shape over the years.
For instance, you can discover, through a computer touch-screen program, whether as a resident of a particular state in a particular year -- say, Massachusetts in 1820 -- you could vote. And you can add your two-cents -- via a bulletin board and sticky note -- on any number of contemporary Constitutional debates, e.g., prayer in school, Ten Commandments exhibits, or detainment of terrorist suspects. Two exhibits highlight the most recent Constitutional crises: the impeachment of President Clinton and (a choice I found delightful) a Florida voting machine.
Other exhibits invite visitors to participate in various rituals of democracy. At one, you can take the Presidential oath of office, complete with a video hologram that approximates Chief Justice Rehnquist standing next to you. You can also, of course, purchase the video of your "inauguration" in the gift store afterwards. And you can vote for "the best" President, which increasingly boils down to a contest between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
The final exhibit in the Center invites you to sign the Constitution, surrounded by life-size bronze statues of the original framers. It was interesting to hear people remark, amid the noble scene, on just how short many of the "founding fathers" were. But for me that detail seems to highlight the human lure of this otherwise monumental piece of architecture, and of the American experiment itself. The National Constitution Center is a moving reminder that the historical responsibility for freedom is inevitably incarnated in the practices of fallible -- and vulnerable -- people. Such a secular faith has contours that can include explicitly religious traditions -- hence its enduring appeal -- but that finally must transcend parochial claims to preserve the fabric of human law.
I suspect I found this reminder so moving precisely because, since September 11, 2001, such a secular faith seems as fragile as ever. Carved indelibly in the September sky, Franklin's question remains an open one.
Jon Pahl is a professor at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. His forthcoming book is titled Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place (Brazos Press).
This month's Religion & Culture Web Forum commentary is by Thomas J. Curry, a colonial historian and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The essay is entitled "Religion and the Constitution Confounded: Treating the First Amendment as a Theological Statement."
Our modern problem arises from the fact that government -- the Supreme Court especially -- has determined that the free exercise of religion is something guaranteed by government, that courts are to define and protect. As a result, understanding of the First Amendment is in utter disarray. Because judges assume themselves to be the protectors of religious liberty -- rather than a threat to it, as the Amendment proclaims -- they assume that they are the judges of what comprises that religious liberty. Thus they read the Amendment as containing substantive theological statements.
Invited responses to Bishop Curry's essay from Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and W. Clark Gilpin, both of the University of Chicago Divinity School, may be found on the forum's public discussion board. We invite you to engage the materials and offer your own thoughts on the same discussion board throughout the month of September. Past forums are also always available for review in our archive.
Coming up in October, look for a web forum commentary from Professor William Schweiker of the University of Chicago Divinity School entitled "Humanity Before God: Theological Humanism from a Christian Perspective." The essay anticipates issues that will be addressed at the upcoming Divinity School conference "Humanity before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics," October 21-23, 2003.