The Obligations of the Faithful in the Constitutional Redemption Project
Constitutional Redemption envisions the Constitution as a wiki-like project of tinkering and revision in which each “generation has an obligation to flesh out the Constitution’s abstract commitments and build out institutions.” How do the American people fulfill that obligation in practice? As Doug underscored, Jack isn’t necessarily suggesting that lay people read the Constitution’s text and try to convince others to see it their way. They could, and the written nature of the Constitution gives them the opportunity. More often though, elites tend to mediate on their behalf, producing narratives that shape how the public understands the constitution and how the courts interpret it.
Jack’s vision of constitutional stewardship offers much-needed inspiration, but like any notion of religious stewardship, we must ask what is required of its followers. We might consider parsing the obligations of participants in the constitutional redemption project as follows. One might imagine that judges, politicians, and government officials are the high priests who owe a special responsibility to redeem the Constitution’s promises on the public’s behalf. Or, in secular terms, these figures stand in a special relationship to the public. Like firemen, policemen, and lifeguards that tort law holds have a special responsibility for the public welfare, this category of actors cannot shirk their duty to rescue the constitutional project whenever it is endangered.
Much like the Good Samaritan who comes upon the scene of an accident and offers assistance, social movement activists undertake efforts to rescue the constitution. And like the well-intentioned bystander, they, too, must take steps not to cause gross harm. As Frank notes, some social movements could intentionally mislead the public. Once a social movement signals their intent to speak for others, they must do so faithfully to the principles of “We the People.”
That leaves lay people who don’t necessarily understand the redemption project — they can either participate or let others speak for them, as Joey explores. Jack doesn’t seem to put forth a thick notion of citizenship, but he does seem to call for supererogatory engagement. While people can remain citizens without expressing the ideals of constitutional stewardship, our best shot at redemption comes from their doing so, even and especially in the absence of obligation.
What Jack’s brilliant book does is highlight the pivotal role and responsibility of the American people in the constitutional project. It’s a project worth joining and worth thinking hard about the scope of its obligations.