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Queens, Christ, & Constitutions: An Existential Elegy

Not long ago Miss South Carolina botched her answer to a question in the Miss Teen USA pageant…a move that sent millions of viewers racing to watch her tortured response on YouTube and made her the unfortunate butt of numerous jokes offered by countless comedians. The question referred to the fact that some 20 percent of Americans cannot find the United States on a map…a rather staggering statistic.

A new survey points to another area of deficiency in the knowledge base of the American public; this one with regard to our understandin g of the Constitution . Some may contend it is simply a reflection of differing interpretati ons…a seemingly valid, though problematic possibility which I will endeavor to address.

The survey results lead one to ask if a trend is emerging and if we can identify the factors precipitatin g this apparent lapse in acuity. Before exploring the possibilitie s, or lack thereof, take a look at the following excerpts from the survey.

From The First Amendment Center:

WASHINGTON — Sixty-five percent of Americans believe that the nation’s founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation and 55% believe that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation, according to the “State of the First Amendment 2007” national survey released today by the First Amendment Center.

Just 56% believe that the freedom to worship as one chooses extends to all religious groups, regardless of how extreme — down 16 points from 72% in 2000.

58% of Americans would prevent protests during a funeral procession, even on public streets and sidewalks; and 74% would prevent public school students from wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that might offend others.

25% said “the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees,” well below the 49% recorded in the 2002 survey that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, but up from 18% in 2006.

“Americans clearly have mixed views of what First Amendment freedoms are and to whom they should fully apply,” said Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center. “To me the results of this year’s survey endorse the idea of more and better education for young people — our nation’s future leaders — about our basic freedoms.”

The right to practice one’s own religion was deemed “essential ” or “important ” by nearly all Americans (97%); as was the right to “speak freely about whatever you want” (98%) and to “assemble, march, protest or petition the government (94%),” Policinski said. “Still, Americans are hard pressed to name the five freedoms included in the First Amendment,” he said. Speech is the only one named by a majority of respondents  (64%), followed by religion (19%), press and assembly (each 16%) and petition (3%).

First Amendment Center Senior Scholar Charles Haynes: “While the survey shows Americans highly value religious freedom, a significant number support privileging the religion of the majority, especially in public schools. Four decades after the Supreme Court declared state-sponso red religious practices unconstituti onal in public schools, 58% of respondents support teacher-led prayers and 43% favor school holiday programs that are entirely Christian. Moreover, 50% would allow schools to teach the Bible as a factual text in a history class.

“The strong support for official recognition of the majority faith appears to be grounded in a belief that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, in spite of the fact that the Constitution nowhere mentions God or Christianity . Of course, people define “Christian nation” in various ways — ranging from a nation that reflects Christian values to a nation where the government favors the Christian faith. But almost one-third of respondents appear to believe that the religious views of the majority should rule: 28% would deny freedom to worship to any group that the majority considers ‘extreme or on the fringe.’”

A third think the press has too much freedom and 60-plus percent believe the press is biased in its reporting or, worse, falsifies or makes up stories.

The data tend to mirror the recent rise in the rhetoric and the rancor surrounding religion in the political sphere and the expanded focus upon social issues…a focus which has frequently been derived from religious doctrine (primarily the Bible).

Unfortunatel y, this has led to an erroneous belief that legislation ought to be predicated upon that premise. The fact the Karl Rove and the GOP have sought to exploit this gaffe has only exacerbated the misconceptio n and the divisive vitriol it promotes.

Let me be clear…people have the right to support the legislation they favor…which is as it should be. However, said legislation mustn’t impinge upon constitution ally granted rights; otherwise our judicial system exists and is intended to intervene to prevent such overreach (a function which has all too often been falsely defined as judicial activism). Beyond this fundamental legislative construct, voters can also attempt to alter the constitution .

Sadly, the political premise of laissez-fair e has been circumvented by those who would seek to impose one set of theological beliefs above all others…an action undoubtedly in conflict with the intent of the Constitution . Clearly, the document seeks to remain neutral in this regard so as to allow for the desired freedoms our forefathers sought…inclu ding the freedom to hold one’s chosen religious beliefs without interference or imposition from the state. That delicately nuanced balance appears to be in jeopardy…and the survey seems to affirm an expanding threat.

At first blush, one might be inclined to scratch one’s head at the inaccuracies found in the respondent opinions; however, when one considers that a fifth of Americans can’t even identify their nation on a map, the lack of constitution al proficiency seems a logical extension of an unsettling trend.

As America seeks to install democratic values in the Middle East, the erosion taking place on the home front seems a stark contradictio n, as well as a tacit endorsement of similar actions on the part of those we view to be adversaries. The fact that others embrace a theological bent we may justifiably find to be fully unacceptable points out the precarious nature of our dilemma.

Understandin g the degree to which we should act to address the unsavory aspects of these conflicting ideologies is a complex predicament. We would be well advised to avoid the wholesale negation of other non-threaten ing beliefs which reside under the same basic theological umbrella of our antagonists… beliefs we may not affirm but cannot in good conscience…a nd in keeping with our constitution al values…seek to extinguish. It is difficult to imagine we can succeed in discerning this fine line of distinction if we can’t do as well with regards to our own actions here at home.

When one imagines a large number of constitution ally illiterate Americans attentively watching a beauty pageant finalist failing to speak coherently about basic issues of geography and education in a country where 20 percent of us can’t identify our nation on a map, the concept of engaging in an effort to export our democratic values seems an epic existential exercise. Consequently  , I have my suspicions that the current ideological conflicts we face at home and abroad may represent mankind’s sempiternal challenge.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater


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3 Responses to “Queens, Christ, & Constitutions: An Existential Elegy”

  1. Daniel DiRito said:

    Sadly, the political premise of laissez-fair e has been circumvented by those who would seek to impose one set of theological beliefs above all others…an action undoubtedly in conflict with the intent of the Constitution .

    When you mean theological beliefs, which ones are you talking about?

    Just 56% believe that the freedom to worship as one chooses extends to all religious groups, regardless of how extreme — down 16 points from 72% in 2000.

    In another related question in the survey (#11), 66% believe that the amount of religious freedom is about right, above 2000 levels. So, which question is right? Or are they both right? And how come there two different percentages of the same answer? One of those extreme religious beliefs that have not been extended are the early Mormon and Muslim belief in polygamy; the federal government told Utah legislators that Utah wasn’t going to be allowed to become a state until the practice of polygamy was outlawed. And I haven’t heard of a court challenge from Muslims. This is supposed to be a survey about an understandin g of what is in the Constitution . Question #9 deals with the right to privacy. Except, this right is not explicitly defined in the Constitution and came about through the decisions in Griswold (and subsequently extended in Roe v. Wade, Lawrence v. Texas, etc.).

    First Amendment Center Scholar David Hudson: “The survey results indicate the public does not have strong support for student expression — an unfortunate reality given that students may not appreciate our constitution al democracy if they live in an environment that does not respect their rights to freedom of expression. We all would do well to remember the words of Justice Robert Jackson many years ago: ‘That boards of education are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitution al freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount principles of our government as mere platitudes. ”

    Unfortunatel y, the courts have given public school administrato rs a lot of latitude in order to maintain order and avoid conflicts. I’m not stating an opinion either way on this, just pointing out what’s gone on.

    …60-plus percent believe the press is biased in its reporting or, worse, falsifies or makes up stories. These responses are far too chilling for a healthy democracy.

    Maybe if the media gets rid of the hypocrisy of saying they aren’t biased, when they most definitely are, then this wouldn’t be so “chilling”.

    It should also be noted that free speech is not always free; we don’t have a right to say anything we want. Slander is not free speech. Protecting a source (#12) who is wanted for a crime is not freedom of the press. Religious expression in the form of murder is not freedom of religion (I’m not singling out any religion, just making an extreme example). I also believe their questions regarding campaign financing are misleading. Spending money on a political candidate, personally or through a group, is an expression of support, and should have been presented that way; helping to fund a campaign, through legal monetary means, is (in my opinion) freedom of expression.

  2. Good post Daniel!!

  3. Thank you for sharing!

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