By Sam Terry
Jobe Publishing, Inc.
Last Sunday, September 17th, marked the 230th anniversary of the United States Constitution, a document regulating the greatest experiment in government the world has known to date. In 1787, the newly-free 13 states disagreed on how a central government should look and how it should operate. Individual states wanted to maintain autonomy by handling their own foreign affairs, some refusing to financially support a central government, and others refusing to honor laws passed by the wobbly-legged Confederation’s Congress.
Had future President James Madison and other leaders failed to create a durable document, the fragile young nation could easily have been overtaken. Spending the hot and humid summer of 1787 debating a constitution, the result was a resilient, living document that remains a marvel more than two centuries later. Amended only 27 times (and one of those was to repeal an earlier amendment), our Constitution has become the world’s model of self-governance.
Fast-forward 230 years and our country finds itself plagued by citizens and even elected leaders who know little about our Constitution. Just how little do they know? A good indicator came last week when the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania released the results of its annual Constitution Day Civics Survey. Researchers asked a sampling of Americans from coast to coast about the Constitution. The results were dismal, at best.
Only 26-percent of the respondents could name the three branches of government (in case you’re among the 74-percent who are stymied by the question, they’re the legislative, executive, and judicial branches). If you don’t grasp the idea of three separate but equal branches of government, then you don’t understand our system of checks-and-balances. A brilliant concept, federal judges can harness a power-grabbing president, Congress can create and pass legislation but the president’s approval is needed if it’s to become law. Not understanding what separation of powers means, one can begin to think that the president is an ultimate power when he or she is simply the head of one of the three branches of government.
Significant to the current arguments about immigrants, 53-percent of Americans incorrectly believe that immigrants in our country illegally have no rights under our Constitution. Imagine their surprise to learn than in 1886 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that any person – anyone – in our country is guaranteed the rights, liberties, and protections of the Constitution.
Among the survey’s respondents, 37-percent couldn’t name a single right guaranteed to every American in the First Amendment. Perhaps you’re thinking the open-ended question was too complicated, but participants were then prompted. The results show that only 48-percent knew that freedom of speech is protected by the Constitution. Sadly, that was the best percentage of correct responses. Only 15-percent said freedom of religion – meaning freedom of religion and from religion. Similarly, 14-percent mentioned freedom of the press while 10-percent answered the right to peaceably assemble. Only 3-percent said the right to petition the government for a redress of wrongs and grievances. The remaining responses were even gloomier.
Consider the facts – a sizeable portion of Americans are utterly unfamiliar with of our government’s principles. If people are clueless about fundamental rights established in our Constitution, it’s a threat to democracy. Simply put, America’s overwhelming civic ignorance is a national disgrace.
Ironically, while our natural citizens are so lacking in knowledge, we demand that immigrants seeking citizenship study our Constitution and our history in preparation for taking a citizenship test. It’s a sad realization that many new citizens have greater knowledge about how our country works than some of our lifelong neighbors. Moreover, our newly-naturalized citizens eagerly await the moment they can cast a ballot as a citizen, yet our native citizens can’t be persuaded to even cast a ballot in an election.
The success of a democratic society hinges on citizens who are well-informed. What is the value of a government of the people, for the people, and by the people if the people have no idea of their roles as citizens or the rights to which they are entitled?
Our future demands that we take social studies and civics textbooks off the shelves and make them an educational priority. History matters. Civics matter. Their diminished importance results in a nation of people who have forgotten civil discourse and social justice in favor of a society of people who can no longer talk to one another.