I missed Constitution Day. It was last Friday, September 17, the anniversary of the final meeting of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, when they signed the document they had debated and created.
It is too bad that Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the conscience of the Senate and a faithful guardian of the Constitution, is not still alive to remind us. Byrd would stare you in the eye, reach into the breast pocket of his suit jacket, pull out a well-worn copy of the Constitution and start quoting with stern reverence.
We could use more of that kind of devotion today at all levels of our society. The Constitution is not just for politicians and history professors, it is for all of us. The document provides the essential framework for our government of, by and for the people, yet it is not always well understood.
The annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey of Americans finds that most of us do not really know much about our government. We can sure complain about it, rail on social media and gripe to our friends and family, but do we know what we are talking about?
Only 56 percent of adults could identify all three branches of government. (For the record, they are the Executive, Judicial and Legislative, but since you are reading this, you already know that.) That number is startling, until you realize that 56 percent is the highest since the survey began in 2006!
One in five adults could not name any of the branches of government.
Only one out of every three people know that a U.S. Senator serves for six years, while only 36 percent correctly answered that members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms.
We Americans are fond of saying, “I know my rights,” and perhaps on a more encouraging front, many do. Three-fourths of those surveyed could name freedom of speech and freedom of religion as two of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
However, if we were truly dedicated to understanding our government and were faithful guardians of our freedoms, the five essential rights (religion, speech, press, assembly, petition) guaranteed in the First Amendment would be engrained in our conscience. (For the record, I had to double check!)
But then again, naming the rights is only a first step. Do we understand them? The survey found that half of Americans said that arresting those who entered the U.S. Capitol on January 6 to disrupt the certification of the presidential election violated their Constitutional rights.
It is a threat to the stability of our democracy when individuals can somehow justify illegal activities as a freedom exercise.
The Constitution and civics should be as essential to our education as reading, math and science. A society–and that includes me–well versed about the legitimate functions, as well as the limitations, of government would be better able to rationally debate the issues of the day rather than relying on pure emotion or misconceptions.