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Misunderstanding and Confusion about Religious Freedom

by Paul Rasor, Center Director

Nearly all Americans consider religious freedom to be an extremely important right, but most Americans hold confused or erroneous ideas about what religious freedom means. This is the basic message I take from the results of a recent nation-wide survey on the "State of the First Amendment." The First Amendment Center, associated with Vanderbilt University, has conducted this survey every year since 1997, and its 2007 report was released in September.

The good news is that when asked about the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, fully 97% of Americans agree that the right to practice the religion of one's choice was either "essential" or "important," and 89% said the same thing about the right to practice no religion. A similarly high value was placed on other First Amendment rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the rights to assembly and petition. Ironically, only 19% could name religious freedom as one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, and even fewer could name any other First Amendment rights other than free speech. (64% knew that freedom of speech was named in the First Amendment, but this should be 100%.) Yet despite the widespread and strong support for these basic rights, a quarter of all Americans agreed with the statement: "The First Amendment goes too far in the rights in guarantees." There is clearly a disconnect somewhere.

I suspect this confusion may stem in part from a tendency to see the Constitution as primarily protecting the rights of majorities. The survey bears this out. For example, only half (56%) of Americans believe that the freedom to worship as one chooses applies to all religious groups, regardless of how extreme their beliefs. This figure is down from 72% in the 2000 survey, which suggests that the events of 9/11 have had an effect on beliefs about religion and religious freedom. By the same token, nearly three in ten Americans (28%) believe that freedom of worship was never meant to apply to religious groups the majority considers extreme or fringe, up from 19% in 2000.

These findings are disturbing. They indicate widespread misunderstanding about the meaning of the Constitution and the nature of religious freedom. Indeed, they indicate that many of us feel the Constitution must mean whatever we think it means. More importantly, the survey suggests that many Americans believe that what counts as a legitimate religious belief can be determined by majority preference. The republican form of government established by the Constitution does, of course, honor the will of the majority in our system of elected representatives. But the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, was intended precisely to protect minority viewpoints from what Tocqueville called the tyranny of the majority. This includes minority religions, even those that may seem strange and unfamiliar to many Americans.

This majoritarian confusion is related to another basic misunderstanding reflected in the survey. Two-thirds (65%) of Americans believe that the nation's Founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation, and more than half (55%) think the Constitution actually establishes a Christian nation. But this is simply wrong. Neither God nor Christianity is mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. Moreover, as several of the speakers in our Fall 2007 Symposium From Jamestown to Jefferson reminded us, the Founders were very much aware of the religious diversity that existed even in eighteenth century America. And while some states privileged particular churches for a time, the new federal government intentionally did not. That is the meaning of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

In the end, the First Amendment Center survey indicates a compelling need for more and better education at all levels. We are not talking here about complex academic theories or the subtleties of the latest Supreme Court opinion. We are talking about the most basic knowledge of our constitutional system—knowledge of our rights and liberties as a free people. This is what education for citizenship in a democracy is all about, and if the results of this survey are any indication, we are failing.

The full survey is available online at: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/sofa_reports/index.aspx.

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