The Duncan Banner

September 30, 2012

Can we ‘take back’ what we don’t understand?

Life as I know it

Jeff Kaley
The Duncan Banner

DUNCAN — Jargon and slogans are popular at tea parties these days, and one of the more frequently heard and seen mottos is: Taking back the Constitution.

Now, some of us didn’t realize the Constitution had been stolen or lost or borrowed. Apparently, though, other Americans (Tea Partyists, conservatives and libertarians, for the most part) are concerned that’s happened. They want the written framework of our government “returned.”

Which begs the questions: What is it these folks want to take back? And how many of them — heck, how many Americans in general — know much about this important document? A variety of surveys and students spanning several years indicate most us don’t know that much about the Constitution.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In a Columbia Law School survey a few years ago, two-thirds of Americans believed the phrase was written by the Founding Fathers and was included somewhere in the Constitution.

Well, unless one of the Founding Fathers was actually the “Father of Modern Communism,” lots of folks are mistaken. See, that maxim is straight from the Karl Marx handbook.

Through all my adult life there’s been heated debate about abortion. Many anti-abortion supporters, who are genuine in their passion and concern, believe as soon as Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion will become universally illegal in the USofA.

But the seven of 10 Americans who indicated such belief for the Columbia survey are wrong. There’s a distinction between what is constitutionally permitted and what is constitutionally required. If Roe v. Wade was overturned today, legal abortion would still exist.

There are other surveys indicating a lot of Americans don’t understand what’s actually in the Constitution; what is or isn’t constitutionally protected.

I’ve written before about survey results showing only one in four Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, which is a lower percentage than the number of folks who can name all five members of Homer Simpson’s family.

In polls circulated in the last two or three years by the National Constitution Center, the Annenberg Public Policy Center and other entities, over half of those surveyed mistakenly believed:

n The president, acting alone, can appoint a justice to the Supreme Court.

n The Constitution already establishes English as the national language.

n The Constitution guarantees the right to a free public education.

Findings in various surveys indicate:

n Almost half of Americans mistakenly think a Supreme Court decision can never be overturned.

n The same number believe a president can suspend constitutional liberties in a time of national emergency.

n Eight-five percent believe any important case may be appealed from the state courts to the Supreme Court.

n One in six people think the Constitution establishes America as a Christian nation.

n Over 46 percent of adult Americans don’t know the purpose of the Constitution was to create federal government and define its powers.

n Twenty-six percent believe the Constitution’s purpose was to declare independence from England.

n About 81 percent don’t know the Constitution was written in 1787.

Most Tea Partyists are incensed about taxes, with some being certain taxation is not constitutionally guaranteed. However, it is. The 16th Amendment authorized an income tax.

And there’s a long, long list of misunderstandings, misinterpretations and just flat-out misinformation about what’s in our Constitution.

That’s understandable. The Constitution is a laborious read; there’s wording and language only a scholar can grasp. Some of our constitutional laws are as simple as black and white; others are nuanced and vague, like the Second Amendment.

If the right to bear arms were clear-cut, would we still be having a centuries-old argument on whether the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to possess firearms or whether it only guarantees states have the right to maintain a militia?

It’s ridiculous to expect we’d all understand and remember every passage of the Constitution. After all, Albert Einstein couldn’t remember his home phone number.

But the clarion call to “Take back the constitution” might not ring so hollow if more Americans understood what it was they’re taking back.

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