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A faculty member you should know: Evan Oxman
With the celebration of the United States Constitution upon us, Uihlein Assistant Professor of American Politics Evan Oxman has a few thoughts to voice on the importance of the nation’s supreme legal document.
“Every country needs unity, at least in some symbolic way, and what is great about the American Constitution is that it allows unity out of difference,” he said. “The phrase ‘e pluribus unum’ really speaks to me.”
Constitution Day commemorates the date the Constitutional Convention signed the document. While it falls on September 17, our campus will recognize the date on Wednesday, September 20.
Oxman, who earned his MA and PhD in politics from Princeton University, focuses on political philosophy, American political thought, and constitutional principles, reflects on Constitution Day:
Q: What do you think is the importance of Constitution Day?
A: “I think it is very helpful to set out a day that reminds everyone in a nation about the importance of the principles and ideas laid out in the Constitution. Even though they may seem old, abstract, or difficult, these ideas actually do have a great deal of abiding relevance in today’s politics. You really cannot understand what is going on in today’s politics without having some understanding of that constitutional history. Even if there are concepts you dislike, you have to look at the Constitution to find either the source or the remedy for those potential problems.”
Q: What does the Constitution mean to you?
A: “It is a great institutional innovation. The American Constitution is unique for its time because it is a clearly demarcated, written document that outlines governmental principles. What I like most about the Constitution is the amazing ambiguity. In my opinion, it has lasted so long because it does not settle all of our disputes. Oftentimes, the Constitution is silent on the issues of the day. However, it gives us a common language, or a common discourse, through which to argue. Some people wonder why we have debates about issues like abortion or affirmative action based on constitutional principles instead of just discussing those topics on their individual merits. In my opinion, there is something of great value in having a common, shared text through which to filter our debates. Of all the ways to assimilate and acculturate, I think sharing that common text is a very healthy and productive mechanism.”
Q: What do you think are some misinterpreted or overlooked notions in the Constitution?
A: “There are so many. I think the idea of separation of church and state from the First Amendment in the Constitution is a bit of a misnomer. While we do have a principle of separation of church and state, the Bill of Rights originally only applied to the Federal government and not the states. Therefore, even after the First Amendment, many states had professed religions. Also, many people think it was secular folk who wanted the separation of church and state when it was actually religious people who wanted the government out of religion’s hands. They thought religion would be strengthened if there was no governmental interference. The separation of church and state was not the product of atheists arguing for separation of church and state, but it was actually developed by deeply religious people who did not want entanglement so they could practice on their own without the threat of governmental interference. Only recently has that dynamic changed, and now more religious individuals increasingly want governmental sanctions for their policies.”
Q: Do you think the Constitution is more important now than ever because of the current political climate?
A: “There is always a tendency to voice that thought. Every election I have known has always been the most consequential election of our time, which might just be a form of inevitable presentism. The Constitution has always been—and always will be—important. There will always be a need to return to those principles. In any election, someone is going to be upset, which is not new in American history.”
Q: What do you want students to know about the importance of the Constitution ?
A: “I hope that my students gain an appreciation for why an eighteenth century text still matters both in terms of the institutions we have, and also as a framework for how to debate our political futures. We cannot really have debates about the future unless we have some grounding in the past. I believe the Constitution really helps to merge generations together by forcing us to have a conversation both extended in space and time, which I think is extremely valuable.”
— Tracy Koenn ’18