Tag Archives: civic ignorance

Now I Understand Why People Believe What They Hear on Fox News….

Ever wonder why people don’t recognize when “news” reports are blatantly, obviously incorrect, improbable or impossible? Or wonder why anyone in his right mind would vote for Michelle Bachmann or Louis Gohmert or Ted Cruz?

My working thesis is that folks who don’t know anything–who are hazy about history, have no clue about how government functions and have only the most tenuous connection to the Constitution–simply have no context within which to judge the reasonableness of assertions that more knowledgable people simply laugh at.

Recently, Bill Maher cited a study showing that fewer than 17% of incoming college freshmen knew what the Emancipation Proclamation was (he described the incoming class as “Basically, golden retrievers with smartphones”). Unfortunately, we have a lot of studies that conclude we don’t know anything.  And the hits keep coming.

As if we needed even more evidence of Americans’ abysmal lack of knowledge, here are the results of yet another survey I stumbled across:

1. Only 45% of Americans were able to correctly identify what the initials in GOP stood for: Grand Old Party. Other popular guesses were Government of the People and God’s Own Party. Republicans obviously scored much better than Democrats did on this answer.  [source]

2. 55% of Americans believe that Christianity was written into the Constitution and that the founding fathers wanted One Nation Under Jesus. This includes 75% of Republicans and Evangelicals. [source]

3. Although a “relatively” high 40% of people were able to name all three of the United States branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — a far lower percentage knew the length of a Senator’s term. Just 25% responded that a Senator’s term stretches for six years. Even fewer, 20%, knew how many Senators there were.  [source]

4. Americans are known to pick recent heads of state as among the best president in history, which is why Clinton and Reagan regularly rank higher than Lincoln, FDR and Washington. However, Hoover used to routinely top polls of the worst, but today, just 43% of Americans know who he was, according to statistics from the University of Pennsylvania. [source]

5. When asked on what year 9/11 took place, 30% of Americans were unable to answer the question correctly, even as few as five years after the attack. This was according to a Washington Post poll conducted in 2006. . [source]

6. It’s not shocking that 80% of Americans believe that there is life out there somewhere, because it’s hard to look at a vast universe and think we’re completely alone. But 1 in 5 allege that an alien life form has abducted a friend or family member of theirs. Based on population estimates of around 300 million, that means that a terrifying number of people believe they have been probed. [source]

7. When looking at a map of the world, young Americans had a difficult time correctly identifying Iraq (1 in 7) and Afghanistan (17%). This isn’t that surprising, but only a slim majority (51%) knew where New York was. According to Forbes and National Geographic, an alarming 29% couldn’t point to the Pacific Ocean. [source]

8. 25% of Americans were unable to identify the country from which America gained its independence. Although 19% stated that they were unsure, Gallup findings indicated that others offered answers varying from France to China. Older folks scored much better than young people on this question, as a third of those 18-29 were unable to come up with the correct answer. [source]

9. Despite being a constant fixture in school curricula, 30% of Americans didn’t know what the Holocaust was.  [source]

10. Even though we are a predominantly Christian country, only half of Americans knew that Judaism came before Christianity, because the words “Old Testament” are apparently very confusing in that regard. [source]

11. A surprisingly high percentage of Americans, 20%, believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth, instead of the opposite, aka the correct answer. This is despite the fact that centuries of science have consistently proved otherwise. [source]

12. In 2011, Newsweek found that 29% of Americans were unable to correctly identify the current Vice President, Joe Biden, when asked to take a simple citizenship test. Although a relatively low 6% didn’t know when Independence Day was, a much, much higher percentage (73%) had no idea why we fought the Cold War. [source]

13. According to most polls, Americans didn’t know that Obamacare was scheduled to go into effect. Kaiser puts the number at 64%, whereas others say as few as 1 in 8. [source]

14. 2006 AP polls showed that a majority of Americans were unable to name more than one of the protections guaranteed in the first Amendment of the Constitution — which include speech, assembly, religion, press and “redress of grievance.” Just 1 in 1000 could name all of these five freedoms. However, 22% were able to come up with the name of every member of the Simpson family. [sourceTC mark

And we wonder why we elect buffoons to high office.

Just kill me now.



A Simple Quiz

I happened to catch a recent interview between a Tea Party Congressman and a reporter. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get the names of either.)  The Congressman defended  the decision to shut down government if that’s what it took to stop the hated “Obamacare” by saying that government had “no business” being involved in healthcare. When the reporter asked the obvious follow-up question, “what does that mean for your position on Medicare?”– the Congressman looked at her blankly and responded “What’s your point?” He rather clearly had no idea that Medicare is a government program.

Americans are electing to office people who are totally ignorant of the world they inhabit and the Constitution they claim to revere. As “Red George O’Malley,” a frequent commenter here, aptly put it, they are prisoners of their own ignorance.

Recently, I was asked to develop a “quick and dirty” quiz that might test the actual civic knowledge of some of the folks who are so vocal about government and political life. My guess is that readers of this blog would do well on that quiz–and far too many of our elected officials and vocal opinionators wouldn’t. It’s ten questions: see what you think. (Answers are at the end.)

1.     The American Constitution was based largely upon principles of “natural rights” and John Locke’s “social contract” theory. Those ideas came primarily from (a) the bible; (b) English common law; (c) Enlightenment philosophy; (d) James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. 

2.     The first ten Amendments to the Constitution are referred to as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights (a) is the source of rights that government has granted to American citizens; (b) is a list of human or ‘natural’ rights that the government is prohibited from infringing; (c) was included in the Articles of Confederation; (d) all of the above; (e) none of the above.  

3.     Checks and balances were intended to limit concentrations of government power. They include (a) the three branches of government; (b) federalism; (c) judicial independence; (d) all of these; (e) none of these.  

4.     Freedom of Speech is (a) protected by the First Amendment; (b) protection against government censorship; (c) intended to protect unpopular views, even when majorities of citizens believe those views are dangerous; (d) all of the above; (e) none of the above.    

5.     The phrase “separation of church and state” refers to (a) the assault on Christianity by liberal judges; (b) the rule that Churches are tax exempt; (c) the operation of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment; (d) all of these (e) none of these.  

6.     The Fourth Amendment was an outgrowth of anger at searches by King George’s soldiers under what were called “General Warrants.” The Amendment (a) prohibits government from conducting searches without ‘probable cause’; (b) has been held to require individualized suspicion; (c) forbids government from conducting ‘fishing expeditions;’ (d) places the burden on government to justify a search; (e) all of these.  

7.     Equal Protection of the Laws requires government to (a) treat all citizens the same; (b) treat similarly-situated citizens equally; (c) protect citizens against discrimination by other citizens; (d) all of these; (e) none of these.  

8.     The Deficit is (a) the national debt; (b) the difference between what government takes in and what it spends on an annual basis; (c) calculated without taking entitlements into account; (d) all of these; (e) none of these.  

9.     The Debt Ceiling (a) is the amount of money the country is authorized to borrow; (b) allows the U.S. to borrow what is necessary to pay amounts Congress has previously spent or authorized spending; (c) has generally been raised by large, bipartisan Congressional majorities; (d) all of these; (e) none of these.

10.  A scientific theory is (a) scientists’ best guess about the way a natural phenomenon works; (b) a systematic methodology based on the accumulation of empirical evidence; (c) based on Darwinian ideology; (d) a rejection of religion.


Answers: 1(C); 2(B); 3(D); 4(D); 5(C); 6(E); 7(B); 8(B); 9(D); 10(B).  

Excuse Me??

That whole “alternate universe” thing just keeps getting more bizarre.

Sandy Rios, formerly of Concerned Women for America, is now the host of a radio talk show for the American Family Association. Both organizations have a decidedly different slant on reality, but as Ed Brayton notes in a recent post from “Dispatches from the Culture Wars,”  Ms. Rios seems to have forgotten about two entire wars that George W. Bush launched:

“The problem with Islam, and we know this Bill, I would like to say, in fact I was going to write this article and I’ll just spill the beans on the air and that is they keep talking about what George Bush left this president and they’re talking about the horrible economy and what a mess he left and they haven’t been able to even turn it around in four years because it’s horrendous. But I’ll tell you what else he left them; he left them peace, he left them peace for ten years. And now that’s going ragged because we have been operating under Obama’s policies for the last four years and we are reaping the bitter fruits of chaos not only in the Middle East but in the world at large because we have not been dealing with them with strength.”

Until I read this, my favorite “excuse me” moment–not that it was easy to choose just one–was the line from a Mourdock ad that says something to the effect that “Joe Donnelly has been in Washington for eight years, and during that time the deficit rose by trillions of dollars.” I’ve lived in Indianapolis for over fifty years, and during that time the murder rate has increased–that hardly means I’m responsible. There are, of course, plenty of other inane and stupid political spots running–this bit of idiocy had lots of competition.

I can’t decide whether the politicians and pundits saying these things are unbelievably ignorant–or whether they just think we are.

And if it’s the latter…..dear lord, what if they’re right?

I am really, really ready for this election to be over.

File Under: Just Shoot Me Now

The brazen David Barton strikes again.

If we did even a reasonable job of civics education in this country, people like Barton would be objects of laughter–as they so richly deserve.

That said, this latest bit of historical revisionism is so self-evidently ridiculous, the only people who would fall for it would be those who really want to believe…

Filling the Void

I know I keep harping on the damage caused by Americans’ ignorance of our most basic history and philosophy, but the evidence just keeps piling up. I’m pasting, below, a recent essay by noted religious historian Martin Marty, in which he weighs in on David Barton–a charlatan who has made a living by manufacturing the sort of history fundamentalists want to believe. It’s easy, because most of us come to these issues with absolutely no knowledge. Instead, we have large voids, which these people are all too eager to fill. UPDATE: IF YOU CANNOT READ THE ATTACHMENT BELOW, HERE’S  THE LINK: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/sightings/archive_2012/0430.shtml





Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion
The University of Chicago Divinity School


Sightings 4/30/2012

David Barton’s Jefferson

— Martin E. Marty


Our premier historian of late colonial and early republican America, Gordon Wood, while reviewing a book on Roger Williams warms up readers with references to Thomas Jefferson. “It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the ‘priestcraft’were always in alliance with despots against liberty. For him the divine Trinity “was nothing but ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘hocus-pocus’. . . Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it.”

If you wanted to promote the idea of “a Christian America,” one which would privilege one religion, a version of Christianity, and de-privilege all others, and if you want to get back to roots and origins, the last of the “founding fathers” on whom you’d concentrate would be Jefferson. Yet the most ardent public and pop advocate of privilege and virtual establishment, David Barton, cites Jefferson for Bartonian positions which are directly opposite of Jefferson’s. Never heard of David Barton? Most of the historians you would ever meet never heard of him, and if you told them about him and his positions, they would yawn or rage about listing him among those who deal honestly with Jefferson.

Sightings does not over-do ad hominem and sneering references, so we leave to others all the disdaining that Barton so richly merits. Do note, however, that he has invented a case and product which serve his viewpoint and draw him enormous followings among “conservative” factions which oppose separation of church and state in most cases except those they choose. Listen to Mike Huckabee or Glenn Beck or rightist cable TV and you will find Barton showing up everywhere.

His favorite founder seems to be Jefferson, of all people. How does he work his way around to the prime builder of “a wall of separation between church and state,” in the metaphor that would not be my favorite. Sample: Thomas Jefferson, razor in hand snipped all supernatural references out of his copies of the Gospels (in the four languages he read in White House evenings), to keep Jesus as a pure ethical humanist. This spring Barton is publishing The Jefferson Lies, which most historians would title Barton’s Lies about Jefferson. Astonishingly, he twists a slight reference to Jefferson’s book on Jesus and turns it into a tract which, Barton says, Jefferson would use in order to convert the Indians to Christianity. Reviewer Craig Ferhman in theLos Angeles Times found all that Barton found to be “outrageous fabrication.” On TV, Barton even said, with no evidence, that Jefferson gave a copy of his Jesus book to a missionary, to use “as you evangelize the Indians.” Had the Indians been converted with that text, their heirs would have had no place to go but to what became the humanist wing of the Unitarian-Universalist church.

Why does any of this matter? One, basic honesty is at issue; do American religionists need to invent such stories in order to prevail? Two, what if they did prevail? Most of the founders thought that religion was most honest and compelling when its leaders and gatherings did not depend upon lies about the state and, of course, upon the state itself. “Separation of church and state” is admittedly a complex issue, dealing as it does with inevitable conflict and messiness in a free and lively republic. May debates over it go on, but with honest references to Jefferson and his colleagues and not on the grounds David Barton proposes.



Gordon S. Wood, “Radical, Pure, Roger Williams,” New YorkReview of Books, May 10, 2012.

People for the American Way, “David Barton’s ‘Outrageous Fabrication’ about Thomas Jefferson,” Right Wing Watch, January 9, 2012.








Martin E. Marty’s biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.









This month’s Religion& Culture Web Forum features “Three Lights on the Queen’s Face: On Mixing, Muddle, and Mêlée” by Larisa Jasarevic. Jasarevic writes about encounters at a singularly popular therapist in Bosnia, Nerka, whom patients have lovingly titled “the Queen of Health.” In the midst of the new medical and magical market, sorcery and Koranic healing appeal to people inBosniairrespective of their religious backgrounds, upsetting the conventional image of Bosniaas forever divided by ethno-national-religious considerations. According to Jasarevic, Nerka irreverently puts into play and displaces the differences reified since the 1990s genocidal conflict. Beginning with Jean-Luc Nancy’s reluctant writing on identity and mixing–provoked by the Bosnian war and discourse of ethnic cleansing–Jasarevic’s essay visits some local, ritual, and habitual responses to magical, medical, and religious mixing and paints a gathering around the impossibility of belonging. Read Three Lights on the Queen’s Face: On Mixing, Muddle, and Mêlée.








Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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