Rights And Wrongs

America Flunks A Basic Civics Test

Americans had plenty to celebrate this Independence Day. Unfortunately, their knowledge of the Constitution was not one of them. An alarming poll released by the well-respected Freedom Forum just before the holiday, painfully documented the magnitude of Americans' ignorance of our foundational document.

For starters, most of the public had trouble naming even one of the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. "Freedom of speech" is recognized by 60 percent, but only 16 percent could volunteer that freedom of religion is in there too. The right to petition government for redress of grievances fared even worse: It was cited by a mere 2 percent.

More depressingly, even though we don't know what our freedoms are, more than 20 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement: "The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it protects."

Appallingly high percentages of people seemed quite willing to give up their rights. Even though I am a minister, I found it thoroughly unnerving that 53 percent of Americans think people should not be allowed to say things that offend religious groups. Remember, this was not a question about "hate crimes," around which so much controversy swirls. Rather, those polled were simply asked whether you should be permitted to speak if what you say bothers somebody else. Too many Americans are ready to say "no" to that question.

Fifty-one percent of Americans would prohibit the display in a public place of art "that has content that might be offensive to others." Under this standard, we would probably have to close all museums. A remarkable 20 percent believe the government should approve of stories in newspapers before they are published, while 23 percent do not believe that newspapers should even be allowed to "criticize public officials."

How does our religious liberty fare? Not any better. Although 72 percent think that freedom of religion should be extended to all faiths (with 19 percent claiming it was never intended to protect groups which the majority considers "extreme or on the fringe"), 65 percent believe that teachers should lead children in prayer at school, 61 percent agree with posting the Ten Com­mandments in classrooms and 56 percent favor use of the Bible as "a factual text in a history or social studies class."

On the afternoon before Independence Day, I was on CNN's "Talk Back Live" to discuss this survey. The show began with a brief description of the poll's findings by Freedom Forum official Paul McMasters. Mr. McMasters eloquently crystallized the shocking lack of fundamental understanding of our basic freedoms, remarking, "Americans continue...to have mixed feelings about the First Amendment. They embrace it readily in the abstract, but when it comes to the actual practice of the First Amendment, most Americans start developing reservations. There is some speech that most Americans just can't abide."

After that, the host turned to me and Kristi Hamrick, communications director at the Family Research Council. When asked to give her thoughts on the poll, Kristi said it "delighted" her and showed "that the American people have a lot of common sense."

Hello? She didn't even bother to add a perfunctory note that it was a shame most people don't know what the Constitution contains. Apparently, a leading Religious Right group now officially concedes that ignorance is indeed bliss.

What do we make of all this? There is at least something of a silver-plated lining in the fact that some of the respondents only "mildly" agree with their positions. For example, of the 65 percent who think teachers should lead prayers, 17 percent are only "mildly" convinced. This means that they might be persuaded to alter their view. Second, some of the numbers show a decline in support for government-sponsored religion over polls five and ten years ago. Third, a full 63 percent of the respondents think we have "about the right" amount of religious freedom, suggesting the Religious Right has been largely unsuccessful in convincing the public that the government is a hair's breadth away from crushing Christianity.

What can we do? Obviously, we need to do a better job connecting the overarching principles with their concrete application. It is urgently necessary to remind our friends and neighbors, and occasionally even ourselves, that freedom is fragile and that if we are not willing to protect it from governmental assaults on somebody's else's front, we stand to lose it on our own.

Also, we must face up to the fact that the media itself is not to be held blameless for the underlying antipathy for the press this poll uncovered. It was disheartening that every news network chose to spend the afternoon of June 28 showing endless tape rolls of the van driving Elian Gonzalez to Dulles Airport instead of discussing the four huge Supreme Court cases that were announced that morning. Maybe we can meld our culture of celebrity with education in the future by painting the words of the First Amendment or some other appropriate constitutional proviso on the top on the next vehicle being followed by helicopters with cameras.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of
Americans United for Separation of Church and State.