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State of Ignorance: Americans and the First Freedom

Since 1997, the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University has published a survey it calls “The State of the First Amendment.” As the name suggests, the survey measures public attitudes towards our First Amendment rights and freedoms.

The 2013 survey is out, and the news isn’t good, especially for those of us who value religious freedom.

When asked to name the most important freedom, nearly half of those surveyed replied “freedom of speech.” This isn’t surprising, but the gap between numbers one and two on the list is.

“Freedom of religion” came in second, but was cited by only 10 percent of those surveyed. And that’s as good as it gets for religious freedom in this survey. Once the survey went from generalities to specifics, the results got worse, a lot worse, and in a hurry.

For instance, 62 percent of those surveyed agree that “if a religiously affiliated group receives government funding, then the government should be able to require the group to provide health care benefits to same-sex partners of employees, even if the religious group opposes same-sex marriages or partners.”

Not surprisingly, a higher percentage of those aged 18 to 30 agree with the position.

A similar bad news/worse news dynamic is on display in the responses to the statement “a business providing wedding services to the public should be required to serve same-sex couples, even if the business owner objects to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.”

While 52 percent of all those surveyed agreed with that statement, agreement rose to 61 percent among 18- to 30-year-olds.

As Joseph Knippenberg of Oglethorpe University and a First Things contributor, put it, “Clearly we have not made a compelling case for the importance of religious freedom, especially among younger people ...”

He continues, “Virtually no one is effectively making the case for the religious component of pluralism.” While “we’re all about diversity in race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation,” what is missing is any recognition of “how our love of equality and uniformity is at war with other kinds of diversity and pluralism.”

This “love of equality and uniformity” has produced “government programs [that are] ... homogenizing, rather than being respectful of the liberty necessary to foster less visible kinds of pluralism and diversity.”

Chief among these “less visible kinds” is religious pluralism and diversity. As the survey results show, there is less and less space in American public life for people whose long-held religious beliefs conflict with the newly-emerging orthodoxy on sexual morality.

Ironically, people who value the freedom to express their opinion above all else are more than willing to have government impose their opinions on others.

The only good news in this survey is that, frankly, Americans are fairly ignorant about what the First Amendment says and requires: 36 percent of those surveyed “couldn’t name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment,” and “only 24 percent knew that freedom of religion was among them.”

So, some remedial education on our part can still make a difference.

That’s one reason why the Colson Center is sponsoring a series of events this year on religious liberty. Most notably, we’re the presenting sponsor of a “National Briefing on Religious Liberty” September 28 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The briefing is part of the Truth for a New Generation Conference, one of the best apologetic conferences in the country. Add in a 90-minute defense of religious liberty with experts such as Eric Teetsel, Timothy George, and the Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer Marshall, and a closing presentation by Eric Metaxas, and this becomes a conference you don’t want to miss. I’ll be there, and would love to meet you.

Come to, click on this commentary, and we’ll tell you how to register for the National Briefing on Religious Liberty.

BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at where you can read and search answers to common questions.

John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

Publication date: August 7, 2013

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