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Book of Matthew: Constitutional ignorance all around

Published: March 27, 2009
Section: Opinions

Every once in a while, we hear about how young Americans are suffering from a severe lack of civics education. I certainly won’t argue with this claim. In high school, I remember sitting in a US history class in which at least half of the students could not tell the teacher the number of Justices who sat on the Supreme Court, let alone their names or what their job was.

You can call that anecdotal evidence, but the statistics back me up. A few years ago, the National Center for Education Statistics found that only 47 percent of high school students were able to achieve the “minimum” level in US history and civics, while only 14 percent were able to reach or surpass the “proficient” level. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute did another study, showing a group of high school students the sentence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Only slightly less then half of them knew that it was part of the Declaration of Independence.

This is an enormous problem for the health of our republic, which depends on input from educated, active citizens. And it’s worrisome. But to be honest, there is something that worries me even more than the blatant ignorance of teenagers. That would be blatant ignorance of our leaders.

While there is a tremendous amount of press surrounding civics in schools, I can’t say that I have ever read a report that showed how many members of government could pass a civics test. Which is troublesome, because it is fairly obvious that some could not.

I’ll start with the obvious example: former President George W. Bush. They didn’t accuse him of walking all over the Constitution for nothing. His administration committed countless infractions, from shattering the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution (via warrantless wiretaps) to tossing habeas corpus out the window (via unlawful treatment of enemy combatants), and he had a habit of taking unconstitutional powers from a submissive Congress that only occasionally became indignant. Bush did more than enough to make the average constitutional scholar sick to their stomach; and yet, he managed to win a second term with the votes of Americans who apparently could not have cared less about the law of the land.

But as scary as the Bush-era was, it is now in the past. For something more recent, look no further than the, um, “Honorable” Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN). Like President Bush, Bachmann is not above putting her own partisan interests before the Constitution. Recently, on a talk radio interview, she argued against President Obama’s plan to reduce carbon emissions through “cap-and-trade” legislation. And when I say “argued,” I mean that she called for an armed revolution against the United States government. Bachmann told her constituents, “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back.”

Perhaps, before she and her followers pick up their rifles, they should read Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution, which defines treason against the United States and gives Congress the power to punish those who commit it.

I think my favorite story, however, is that of Michael Steele, Chairman of the Republican National Committee. I say it’s my favorite because unlike the previous two clowns, I actually feel a little sorry for Steele. Not only is he in the tough position of being in charge of a minority party reeling from a massive electoral defeat, but he is also taking considerable flak from both sides over his increasing collection of on-camera gaffes.

But all that doesn’t excuse this nugget of stupidity. While guest-hosting Bill Bennet’s Morning in America radio show, Steele had a discussion with a caller over the constitutionality of the 90 percent tax that was levied on the AIG bonus recipients. The caller claimed that the action by Congress was unconstitutional, because, in his words, “I believe it is the First Amendment that specifically states that a law cannot be passed to specifically target a person or a group of people.”

Now, anyone who has read the First Amendment to the Constitution knows that it prevents Congress from establishing a state religion, hindering the free press, or preventing the people from peacefully protesting the government. Nowhere does it say anything about specifically targeting people.

But Steele didn’t take the time to kindly correct the misinformed caller. Instead, he responded with an enthusiastic “That’s right!” Short, sweet, and completely ignorant.

With all this in mind, I think it might be time to take a quick survey of prominent government officials. A civics test, if you will. Maybe then we can take the results and see who deserves their office and who doesn’t.

Honestly, how can we expect the young Americans to understand how their republic works if their leaders—their supposed role models—don’t understand it either?