First, let me say that I am expressing here my own view of the Tea Party movement’s understanding of the Constitution. Others within the movement may see it differently, but I think I’ve captured the sentiments of a good number of us.
I use the term “secular covenant” to describe the binding nature of the Constitution. It represents an agreement between the citizens, the state governments, and the federal government as to how we consent to be governed. The terms of this secular covenant are contained in the words of the Constitution and its subsequent amendments, and their meaning is the plain meaning of those words. The method of changing the terms of the secular covenant is found in the amendment process of the document itself. No other means of changing the terms–either expansive judicial interpretrations or executive usurpations–are authentic.
I elaborate on this theme in greater detail in my upcoming book, which will be released by Broadside Books in spring 2012, Covenant of Liberty: The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party Movement. In the limited space of this blog, here’s the thumbnail sketch of the definitions of different concepts relevant to my argument:
Contract, Compact, Secular Covenant
Typically a “contract” refers to a binding legal agreement between two parties. It is a private, rather than public agreement. It is important to note that “the sanctity of contract” is a legal principle at the core of the Anglo-American tradition of liberty, and that both “compacts” and “secular covenants” can be viewed as types of public contracts.
A “compact” — such as the Mayflower Compact or “the social compact” — is an agreement among citizens within a society or a community in which they consent to participate in a particular form of governance.
The term “covenant” is derived from those congregational agreements signed by the early members of Puritan Christian congregations — in England and British America — during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Within those congregations grew the concept of theological self governance, which would soon be applied to the civil arena. Hence, the term “secular” covenant. Let me emphasize that though it’s worth discussing whether or not the secular covenant that is our Constitution was “providential” in nature (as many of the Founders believed), the document itself completely rejected the kind of Christian theocracy characteristic of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Cromwell’s England.
A “secular covenant” is like a compact. It is binding on our entire nation because its terms have been thoroughly debated and discussed in a lengthy public process. And yes, I think you could argue that the term “secular covenant” is more descriptive of the Constitution than the term “compact” because of the extensive, highly participative four year process that took place in America between 1787 and 1791 during which the Constitution and Bill of Rights were publicly discussed and accepted.
For these reasons, the Constitution can be described as America’s covenant of liberty.
Michael Patrick Leahy is the editor of the Voices of the Tea Party e-book series and co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter and the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition. His new e-book, I, Light Bulb: A Death Row Testimonial, will be published in July, 2011. His new book, Covenant of Liberty, will be published by Broadside Books in January, 2012. He can be reached on Twitter at @michaelpleahy .