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Institutions and constitutions

by Jim Elliott
| March 30, 2023 12:00 AM

You will hear people say that we need to protect our “institutions” in America. What on earth does that mean? In a nutshell, an institution is words, an idea, not anything you can touch or feel, except with the mind and heart. It is like the cement that holds the bricks of a building together. The Montana Constitution is just such an institution, and it is under stress at the moment. I recently listened to former Gov. Marc Racicot talk about a constitution as a social contract describing how we wish to govern ourselves. That leads me to think of an even more fundamental explanation. A constitution is a contract that we draw up amongst ourselves that defines the way we want to be treated as well as how we want others to be treated. It is, in a sense, a way to formally define our politeness and courtesy toward one another.

There’s a lot more, of course; how we want government to be structured, what we want that government to do, the ways we want to manage our government rather than having that government manage us — all the nuts and bolts of government. But what it keeps coming back to, for me, at least, is how we want the least among us to be treated, not forgetting that we ourselves may be that person. You know: ” … inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt 25:40)

Personally, I believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity, and it is that goodness that binds us together in times of hardship. I have lived in Montana 50 years but one, and in that time I have watched Montana change from a state where people were never a long way from hardship and privation to a state where people came into personal solvency and then many into sudden wealth, and as we progressed up (or, down, if you like) that economic ladder we began to find more fault with one another and began to feud and argue over things that were just trifles years before. Abstract things that maybe we didn’t understand but accepted as the price we paid for being neighbors. We were ranchers and loggers and college kids and shopkeepers and a whole bunch of people with strange habits, but as long as we each pulled our share of the load we were respected for that and left alone.

From a state which chose as its heroes to be placed in the Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol a women’s rights advocate – Jeannette Rankin — who was elected to Congress when women couldn’t even vote for themselves and who was the lone vote against entering into World War II to Charley Russell, a cowboy artist who drank, hung out with priests and Indians, and hated progress but loved people all the same, to a state where we worry about allowing kids to think for themselves and pursue paths that we don’t even understand properly; from a state that once bragged that we had more published writers (and good ones) per capita than any other state to a state where some want to make damned sure that we agree with what our kids read in school whether or not we understand it or have even read it.

I’m getting a ways from where I started out, but now, if you want my definition of an institution that is uniquely ours, it is the Montana Constitution. It is our word and bond to one another that we, through thick and thin, agreeing or disagreeing, will stand by each other when the chips are down. We will protect one another’s ideas, as well as lives, and dedicate ourselves to the common good.

The current Legislature is proposing many changes to our constitution that would weaken its system of checks and balances and its protection of Montana citizens. In a time when the integrity of our Montana Constitution is in danger of moving from a universal social contract to a check on individual freedoms we need to stand together to protect each other from harm.

To protect the institution that protects us.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.

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