America’s Depressing Beliefs about the First Amendment
Religion & Liberty Online

America’s Depressing Beliefs about the First Amendment

hist-ff-first-amendment-7195911What do Americans know about the First Amendment? Since 1997, the First Amendment Center has attempted to find out by taking an annual survey of the “state of the First Amendment.” The results for 2013 are about as depressing as you’d expect:

Americans were asked what they believed was the single most important freedom that citizens enjoy. The majority (47%) of people named freedom of speech as the most important freedom, followed by freedom of religion (10%); freedom of choice (7%); right to vote (5%); right to bear arms (5%); right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (3%), and freedom of the press (1%).

Women were twice as likely as men to name freedom of religion as the most important freedom. Thirteen percent of women named freedom of religion, whereas only 6% of men did.

Freedom of religion is literally the first freedom mentioned in the First Amendment, making it the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights. It was listed first because of it’s historic importance to the Founders and their forefathers. Yet today only 10 percent of Americans think it is our most important freedom? No wonder our government officials are so unconcerned with violating our religious liberties.

Then again, it could be that most American aren’t even aware that religious liberty is a specific freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. For instance:

Asked to name the five specific freedoms in the First Amendment, 59% of Americans could name freedom of speech, followed by 24% who could name freedom of religion, 14% freedom of the press, 11% the right to assemble, and 4% the right to petition. Thirty-six percent of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The percentage of Americans who can name these five First Amendment rights has generally increased over the years since the project began in 1997; however, the awareness of First Amendment rights has decreased overall this year. Knowledge of freedom of religion, speech, and assembly decreased from 28% to 24%, 65% to 59%, and 13% to 11%, respectively, since last year. Those who could name freedom of press increased from 13% to 14% and those who name the
right to petition remains the same at 4%.

Americans not only don’t know what’s in the First Amendment, they have erroneous beliefs about what they think is in the Constitution:

Asked whether they believe that the U.S. Constitution established a Christian nation, 51% of Americans agree while 25% disagree. The number of those who strongly agree with this statement has decreased and those who mildly agree has increased over the years since the question was first asked in 2007. Americans who identify as conservatives are much more likely than others to agree that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation. Sixty-seven percent of
conservatives, 49% of moderates and 33% of liberals agree that the Constitution established a Christian nation.

Additionally, Americans who consider themselves evangelical or born-again Christian are more likely than non-evangelical Christians to agree that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation. Seventy-one percent of evangelicals or born-again Christians agree, while only 47% of non-evangelical Christians support the statement.

Our country is not a “Christian nation” but rather, as the Baptist theologian Albert Mohler duly notes, “a nation of Christians.” America, he argues, “is not Christian by constitutional provision or creedal affirmation—but its people are overwhelmingly Christian by self-affirmation.” But whatever one believes about America being a “Christian nation” that concept is nowhere found in the U.S. Constitution.

Not surprisingly, a country where citizens don’t appreciate the importance of religious freedom have no qualms about the government taking such liberties away from groups that receive government funding:

The majority of Americans (62%) agree that if a religiously affiliated group receives government funding, then the government should be able to require the group to provide health-care benefits to same-sex partners of employees, even if the religious group opposes same-sex marriages or partnerships. Those who disagree tend to feel more strongly on this issue than those who agree with the statement. Twenty-one percent strongly disagree, while 13% mildly disagree.

Higher percentages of young Americans agree that religious groups receiving government funding can be forced to provide health care to employees in a same-sex relationship. Sixty-eight percent of 18-30-year-olds, 62% of 31-45-year-olds, 61% of 46-60-year-olds, and 56% of Americans over 60 support this statement.

Americans who identify as liberal supported the statement the most, followed by moderates and conservatives. Eighty-two percent of liberals, 65% of moderates and 44% of conservatives agree that the government should be able to force groups to provide health care to same-sex couples.

Additionally, non-evangelical Christians (66%) are much more likely than evangelical or born-again Christians (41%) to support the government’s requiring federally funded religious groups to provide health care to same-sex couples.

Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that anytime money is involved, the government can force people to violate their religious beliefs:

A majority of Americans (52%) believes that a business providing wedding services to the public should be required to serve same-sex couples, even if the business owner objects to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

Again, when individuals disagree with this statement they tend to strongly disagree. Twenty-eight percent of people strongly disagree, whereas 17% mildly disagree.

Younger Americans are more supportive of the statement that wedding businesses should be required to serve same-sex couples. Sixty-two percent of Americans 18-30, 55% of 31-45-year-olds, 51% of 46-60-year-olds, and 39% of people over 60 support the statement.

A strong majority (70%) of liberals agrees that government should be allowed to require wedding businesses to serve same-sex couples, while slightly more than half of moderates (56%) and a third (34%) of conservatives support the statement.

Non-religious (59%) and Catholic (61%) Americans are much more likely than Protestants (39%) to believe that the government can require wedding businesses to serve same-sex couples.

Fortunately, a majority of Americans still respect the right of their fellow citizens to worship as they choose:

In 2013, 65% of Americans agree that freedom to worship as one chooses applies to all religious groups regardless of how extreme or on-the-fringe their views, while 31% disagree. This is the highest percentage of Americans who have said the freedom to worship does not apply to extreme and fringe groups since the question was first asked in 1997.

These survey results reveal a broad failure of civics education. As Joseph Knippenberg says,

Clearly we have not made a compelling case for the importance of religious freedom, especially among younger people and minorities. This is a problem both in education (where I suspect too many teachers simply steer clear of any topic that bears on religion) and in our popular culture. It seems to me that virtually no one is effectively making the case for the religious component of pluralism. We’re all about diversity in race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation (all of which, we think, deserve the special solicitude of government). But we don’t recognize how our love of equality and uniformity is at war with other kinds of diversity and pluralism, especially when we believe that government programs ought to be homogenizing, rather than respectful of the liberty necessary to foster less visible kinds of pluralism and diversity.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).