Can you name the five freedoms enumerated in the first amendment?

by Pitt Griffin on July 18, 2013 · 0 comments

in Constitution, Religion

“How easily men satisfy themselves that the Constitution is exactly what they wish it to be” Joseph Story (Supreme Court Justice, 1811-1845)

Conservatives swear fealty to an unchanging constitution, carved in stone, standing as a rock in a tempestuous sea, lashed by fads and fashion, and impervious to the fickle nature of public opinion. Okay that was a little hyperbolic, but no more so than the vigorous language used by impassioned supporters of the “originalist” interpretation of our founding document.

Regrettably this fevered respect for the Constitution does not extend to reading it.

Newseum has just published a survey on how well we know our basic freedoms – specifically the five enumerated freedoms in the 1st amendment. Regrettably most of us have trouble naming more than one. In fact 36% of respondents couldn’t name any.

Most remembered (by 59%) was freedom of speech; followed by freedom of/from religion (24%), freedom of the press (14%), freedom of assembly (11%) and dead last, with a paltry 4%, freedom to petition the government.

What are we teaching in our schools?

Americans have died for our rights, but one third of us say maybe we have too much free speech.

Perhaps even more worryingly, 34% of us think that freedom of speech has gone too far – and the percentage is again on the rise having declined from a high of 49% in 2002. The question I would like to have seen asked is, “If you think that your free speech rights should be curtailed, who do you think should do it?” I am sure that most people would have spluttered that they didn’t mean their own freedom – but someone else’s.

Two other nuggets are buried in the data. The majority of us (51%) agree to a greater or lesser degree that, in the Constitution, America was founded as a Christian nation. The Constitution, in fact, makes no mention of God – let alone Jesus Christ, the Trinity or anything of the like. It even allows for “affirmation” (a secular act) as a substitute for “swearing” (a religious act) in taking the office of the President. The “so help me God” wasn’t part of that oath until FDR.

Which just illustrates what psychologists, political strategists, and religious leaders know so well – the human animal “knows” what it wants to know, or thinks it ought to know – the truth be damned. It is hard to think . It is much easier to have it done for you, much as the local garage maintains your car – except that while most people know they aren’t fixing their car, they are under the illusion that they are still thinking.

Moving on from questions of knowledge to questions of importance, how were these freedoms ranked? In first place, 47% of us named freedom of speech as our most important right, followed by religion (10%), freedom of choice (7%), with the right to bear arms and the right to vote tied at 5%. (Take heed NRA, the people have spoken – but as always, you won’t listen.)

The Constitution is not the only document that people have strong feelings about – without having read it. The Bible might be even more contentious.

You would imagine that people who place great stock in religion – people whose lives revolve around God as described in a 2,000+ year-old Hebrew distillation of Aramaic oral traditions – would take pains to be familiar with it. Yet most are content to be told what’s in it.

Surveys consistently show that American Jews and Atheists have greater knowledge of religion than Christians of any flavor. They also show that religious knowledge is closely aligned with education and has nothing to do with the rate of church attendance.

But that won’t stop some pontificating politician assuring his electorate that the Bible guides his legislative agenda. Or stop self appointed arbiters of social morality, from divining God’s code of conduct, in this majestic and poetic – but ultimately self-contradictory and allegoric – text.

As long as we create constitutional and biblical truths to dovetail with our own desires – but not grounded in the texts themselves, and as long as we – uncritically – hear only what we want to hear, our political debate will have the intellectual depth of two small children arguing on the playground.

End Note:
“So, in the interests of survival, they trained themselves to be agreeing machines instead of thinking machines. All their minds had to do was to discover what other people were thinking, and then they thought that, too.”– Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions.




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