Part Of The Answer: Americans Ignorant Of Basic Civics?

According to the 2015 State of the First Amendment Survey:

When asked to name the five specific freedoms in the First Amendment, 57% of Americans name freedom of speech, followed by 19% who say the freedom of religion, 10% mention the freedom of the press, 10% mention the right to assemble, and 2% name the right to petition. Thirty-three percent of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Over the past year, those naming freedom of speech decreased from 68% to 57%, freedom of religion decreased from 29% to 19%, and freedom of the press declined from 14% to 10%.

Did you notice that only 19% were able to list freedom of religion as a natural, constitutional right guaranteed in the First Amendment to the constitution? Perhaps even more worrying, 33% cannot name a single right protected by the First Amendment. In the past 12 months responses to freedom of religion question declined by 10%. Last year nearly 30% of those polled were able to name it as one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Now now it’s not quite 20%.

That’s a significant drop. What could account for such a dramatic change in such a short period of time? Part of the answer is surely that many Americans have no idea how the constitution came about and why the Bill of Rights was drafted and adopted. This testifies to the apparent decades-long failure of American public education to do even the most basic education in American civics. This is evident by the remarkable number of people who tell pollsters that the First Amendment “goes to far.” Last year 38% said the First Amendment goes too far. We may be thankful that number dropped considerably to 19% this year. That any significant percentage of Americans could think that the First Amendment “goes too far” should trouble everyone who loves liberty (i.e., the relative absence of external restraints upon civil liberties).

The percentage of people that do not sympathize with or understand basic constitutional liberties explains how television talking-heads (pundits) are able to talk about religious liberty (as I saw one doing yesterday) as if the American Republic guarantees nothing more than the right to think unapproved ideas. That, of course, is utter rubbish. All humans, even the hated Christians who were being thrown to the lions (yes, that really happened. Let’s hope that it’s not a preview of coming attractions) could do that. What the American Founders intended was that American citizens of all sorts of denominations and religious creeds should be able not only to think and to say privately what they think but to act on those convictions.

One commentator recently argued that since segregationists appealed to religious conviction to justify a refusal to serve African-Americans, that therefore any appeal to religious convictions relative to refusing to cater a same-sex wedding is illegitimate. This argument is not sustainable since Dr King and the civil rights movement of the same period also appealed to religious convictions in support of their case for equal rights. On the proposed argument, we should have to strike down Dr King’s arguments. Is that the goal of the proponents of SSM? Dr King et al not only thought and said privately certain things that were contrary to the Jim Crow laws they acted on those convictions. Americans from across the nation, of different religious creeds travelled to the American South to march with the Civil Rights leaders. Marching was part of the free exercise of the freedom of assembly (First Amendment) and arguably, it was part of the free exercise of religion. The speeches that were made were part of the exercise of free speech. None of is separable from the religious convictions of, e.g., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

It is true that Americans have sometimes appealed to Scripture to justify the “peculiar institution” of American man-stealing and chattel slavery. Those arguments were not well grounded in the Scriptures nor were they well grounded in the Christian tradition. The NT congregations included slaves but slavery as it existed in the ancient world and particularly as it is reflected in the NT was not identical to the slavery practiced in the American colonies and in the American South.

Further, the facile equation of religious opposition to same-sex marriage with the discredited religious arguments in defense of Southern slavery or those made in defense of segregation fail. First, being African-American is not the same as being homosexual, which is alternately described as a “sexual orientation” and a “lifestyle” and sometimes a biological condition, even though that is hotly disputed. Being black is not an “orientation,” a “lifestyle,” and certainly not a choice. Second, because the historic Christian definition of marriage, indeed, the universal definition, until the late 20th century, of marriage was that it is monogamous and heterosexual. In the ancient, medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation traditions, marriage has been grounded in creation (nature). It also has been said to by some traditions (e.g., Rome) to be a sacrament. The definition of marriage and the rejection of homosexual practice as contrary to nature and sin was not a matter of sectarian division or disagreement. In contrast, the appeal to Scripture in defense of the “peculiar institution” provoked a strong reply from several quarters and even ecclesiastical divisions. There was never a consensus that the American practice of slavery was just nor was it ever agreed that it was grounded in nature.

That Americans do not understand the true nature of religious liberty as guaranteed by the First Amendment is evident in the various court and administrative cases across the US, where bakers, photographers, and florists are being fined, silenced, and threatened with jail for daring to according to their conscience with respect to same-sex marriage. To the best of my knowledge, none of them is refusing to sell, e.g., a cake or flowers to homosexuals but they are drawing the line at cooperating in a same-sex wedding.

There is at least some prima facie biblical evidence for making some sort of distinction like this in 1 Corinthians. The Apostle Paul tells believers that they are free to eat whatever they will. They are free to eat with pagans and even free to eat meat that has been offered to idols (as if there were any such thing really; 1 Cor 8:4) but the moment the pagan announces that the meat has been offered to idols, the moment the pagan tries to involve the Christian in something more than a common meal, at that point the Christian must say “No thank you. I cannot.” We have only one sacred feast: holy communion (1 Cor 10:28). Christians are free to cooperate in common matters but there are lines we may not cross.

If a Christian will cater a same-sex wedding or a Christian hotelier will host a same-sex reception or rent a room to a same-sex couple, that is arguably a matter of Christian liberty but it seems contrary to natural justice and to the protections afforded all citizens by the constitution to require a citizen to participate in a wedding contrary to his convictions. Further, that the LGBT lobby is committed to selective enforcement of “equal access” is demonstrated by the case in Denver where a baker was excused for refusing to act against his conscience (he would not make a cake for an anti-gay marriage event) but the same groups demanded that other citizens act against conscience by catering a same-sex wedding. In short, this is not about truth or freedom but about the use of brute force to compel acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

The evidence continues to mount that, like the second-century Roman pagans, the LGBT lobby and their allies in civil government are bent not only upon redefining marriage but upon forcing conformity to what Justice Alito called “the new orthodoxy.” Bakers and florists in Seattle, Portland, OR, and and Denver have all been fined or threatened with fines (and more) for refusing to participate in or cater a same-sex wedding. This is all quite intentional. It’s not as if there has been some sort of secret rainbow rapture and voila! there are no more homosexual bakers, photographers, or florists. This is part of a strategic move to coerce compliance and acceptance of homosexuality generally and same-sex marriage specifically. The original call for tolerance has turned into a demand for conformity. The fact that same-sex couples have intentionally sought out businesses to punish, sometimes in cooperation with government agencies, illustrates a significant difference between this so-called civil rights movement and that of African-American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s.

Dr King and Dr Abernathy did not have to looking for businesses from which to be excluded. When Jackie Robinson and other African-American pioneers travelled with their teams, they had to say in separate lodgings, if they could find them. They had to eat at separate restaurants, if they could find one. They had to use separate bathrooms, if they could find one. They had to sit at the back of the bus. The African-American civil rights movement did not ask White folk to approve of them (as Sally Kohn is demanding of Christians—if the world is moving on without us, why is it demanding that we cater its weddings against our convictions?) but only to grant them access to schools, hotels, and lunch counters. I’ve argued before that, in reaction to Jim Crow, the 1964 Civil Rights Act unjustly blurred the line between private and public property by using the ambiguous phrase “public accommodation.” It would be have been better to agree that all citizens, regardless of race, have a right to public facilities, i.e., to those things supported in common by tax dollars and public funds. Whether anyone has a right to access to private property is another matter altogether.

This latest poll is not encouraging. Like other recent polls, it suggests that ignorance of basic civil liberties is widespread. That will not bode well for those of us who dissent from the majority in Obergefell or who worry about a Labor Commissioner in Oregon who has issued a gag order. If a florist can be fined into bankruptcy and silenced or if a baker can be jailed for refusing to act against conscience, religious liberty is in jeopardy. Those who deny the existence of this jeopardy are neither convincing nor comforting. The deniers have either adopted the posture of the ostrich (one commentator I saw recently was unaware of the cases in Seattle, Portland, and Denver) or they have redefined religious liberty so as to empty it of any real force.

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One comment

  1. OK, but it seems to me that for many many years Christians have not stood up for their religious liberty, so why should we be so surprised that it is now being taken away? We recite the pledge of allegiance with the words “one nation UNDER God”, but then we give the American flag a place of honor in our churches and on our flagpoles equal to or even above the banner of Christ. We don’t even see the irony.

    The Constitution guarantees religious liberty, which is an acknowledgment that the state has a temporal role in God’s earthly kingdom. We as Christian citizens must take this guarantee of religious liberty to proclaim Christ as the King of heaven and earth, including the government. Our prayer ought to be “Reign supreme O God over the powers of this world” but instead it has often been for God to bless the State even as it refuses to submit itself to the higher authority.

    These things must be repented of. If we are to suffer for His sake, we must do so as martyrs who have done as Christ commands, and not as mere victims.

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