On Constitution Day, celebrate our republic’s gifts to humankind

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Few grown-ups actually celebrate Constitution Day, the federal holiday that ordinarily takes place on Sept. 17 to commemorate the signing of the U.S. Constitution on that day in Philadelphia back in 1787. This year, because the 17th falls on the weekend, it will be observed next week on Monday, Sept. 19. Please mark your calendars now.

I love Constitution Day. It only became official in 2004 by an act of Congress, and I concede that it has not exactly caught on yet. No delicious food offering has yet emerged to symbolize the holiday like matzah ball soup or turkey and stuffing. Nor has it yet become a major gift-giving holiday, although I have mentioned it in the context of tickets to see “Hamilton” to my mother-in-law, who is a great gift-giver, and I take it that Virginian Khizr Khan’s offer at the Democratic National Convention to lend Donald Trump his copy of a baby Constitution still stands. (Constitution Day would be the perfect time to hand it over.)


But the holiday remains low-visibility. I could not even find a Hallmark card wishing anyone a Happy Constitution Day. Although I have been invited to several high schools and one law school to speak on Constitution Day this year, I am still waiting for my first invitation to a Constitution Day party. (I may have to throw one myself even though I will not know what to serve.)

All kidding aside, the close proximity this year between Constitution Day and the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks at least provides us the opportunity to think about what our Constitution means in a world still on fire with religious extremism, civil war, authoritarianism and violence. Terrorist death cults like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda continue to attack civilians in Europe, the Middle East, the United States and all over the world in a bizarre plan to restore the caliphate. Theocratic tyrannies like Iran and Saudi Arabia oppress their populations and spread violence and propaganda throughout the Middle East, demonizing the people of Israel and dooming the chances for real peace and security for people living in the region.

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Let our Constitution Day be the day when we celebrate and offer to the world the real triumphs of the American experiment in democratic government:

Religious freedom and peace — We broke from a history of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants no less bloody than what we see today from Shiites and Sunnis, and we left behind the Inquisition, the Crusades and terrifying witchcraft trials to establish a government based on the principles of religious liberty, secular reason, non-establishment of religion and no religious tests for public office. For this reason, we have today flourishing religious freedom, no sectarian religious violence and remarkable scientific, cultural and political progress in America.


Government by the people — In place of the authoritarian rule by kings, despots and theocrats, we have established government by the people, with a system of distributed and divided powers among legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.

We have rejected the rule of dictators, strongmen, slave owners and white supremacists, and instead built a durable and progressive democracy based on universal voting rights and popular elections, representative government and a system of interlocking checks and balances. It is an always fragile design and it requires constant public reinvestment and renewal. But our system of popular representative democracy and separation of powers keeps despotism at bay. So long as the design of Madison, Jefferson, Franklin and Hamilton survives, we will not be ruled by the likes of Vladimir Putin.

Equal rights and inclusion — We have created a liberal constitutional democracy in an immigrant society and promoted equal rights and universal inclusion. While so many parts of the world are embroiled in ethnic, religious and racial conflict, we have brought together people from everywhere, possessing all kinds of belief, into an open society, free markets and democratic politics. And we live together in remarkable peace, profiting from our diversity and pluralism rather than dying from it.

Freedom of thought and speech — Our Founders were Enlightenment liberals who understood that free inquiry and free discourse were essential to the progress of society, of science, of government and of the individual. Over the centuries, freedom of speech and thought have only grown stronger here, and we impose no official regimes of political correctness and thought control on our population. We are thus a land of remarkable innovation, experimentation and positive change.

Globally speaking, we live in tough times. Climate change has unleashed catastrophic weather events all over the world, unprecedented forest fires, displacement of populations and an alarming rise in sea levels. Meantime, radical Islamic terrorists, fed a steady diet of Wahhabism, continue to destabilize governments and terrorize people all over the world.

How do we respond to these events and bring people together in this troubled century?

As Americans, we must stand strong on the values that have made us great and assist liberal democracies — from Israel to France to India — defending themselves against terror and incitement. We must support movements for democracy and human rights everywhere.

We are unified here not because we belong to one race, one religion, one ethnicity, or one political party or ideology. But what we do have is one Constitution and a glorious Bill of Rights to accompany it. Our constitutional patriotism is what unifies us as Americans.

So happy Constitution Day. Take a look at your Constitution, and carry it with pride.

Jamie Raskin is a Democratic state senator from Silver Spring and Takoma Park and a professor of constitutional law at American University. He is the Democratic nominee for Congress from the Eighth Congressional District.

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