Remember playing the game of telephone as a kid? One child whispered a phrase into someone's ear, and that child whispered what he heard to the next child, and so on?
By the time the last child heard the phrase, it bore little resemblance to the original. "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" would have morphed into something like "Take your thick clown socks and dump them on the lacy frog."
As a society, we do the same thing with certain concepts we hear all the time. When we aren't introduced to the concept in its original form, we tend to learn it incorrectly, simply because it makes sense and sounds correct.
There are a number of these misconceptions that are ubiquitous in our society. I thought I'd take some time to explore five of these misconceptions. These may be interesting topics to discuss with your own children.
Misconception #1: The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves.
The Bible, in fact, does not teach that "God helps those who help themselves." The phrase — even the general concept — does not appear anywhere in the bible. The concept itself, in fact, runs contrary to the principle of God's grace.
According to David Kinnaman, vice president of the Barna Research Group, the idea that God helps those who help themselves "suggests a spiritual self-reliance inconsistent with Christianity." Even so, one study showed that 75% of American teenagers believe the concept is the central message of the bible.
So regardless of popular opinion, the idea that God helps those who help themselves isn't actually a Biblical concept.
Misconception #2: All people should be frugal with their money.
A couple years ago I watched a story on a news show about Freegans, people who don't spend money on food but instead find it by dumpster diving in the big city or foraging in other ways. While that was a bit surprising in and of itself, what shocked me even more was when one of the Freegans told the reporter he believed everyone should live the Freegan lifestyle.
I thought about that for a moment, then came to the conclusion that (obviously) it would be impossible for everyone to be a Freegan.
Where did that food the Freegans scavenged come from? Restaurants who were catering to their diners. If those diners became Freegans, the restaurant would go out of business and there would be no food in the dumpster for Freegans to gather.
Looking at the big picture, and coming from an economics standpoint, that same principle can also apply to the idea that everyone should be frugal (defined here as striving to buy things at low cost or used whenever possible).
For example, if everyone was strictly frugal and never bought a new car, there would be no used cars for "frugal" people to purchase. If everyone refused to purchase furniture new, there would be no used furniture for "frugal" people to purchase.
In that sense, not everyone can be — or really should be — frugal. Those big spenders who purchase new things keep companies in business and allow them to employ people who in turn purchase more things. It's those "non-frugal" purchases that eventually supply the market with used merchandise which the more "frugal" consumers can then purchase at a lower cost.
So while being frugal can be a very good thing, economics is a cycle and a balance of producers and consumers. It might be simplistic, but our economy wouldn't work right if everyone strove to be frugal.
Misconception #3: America is a democracy.
The popular understanding of democracy is that it is a form of government in which one person equals one vote. For a more official, but not necessarily exhaustive definition, Merrian-Webster defines democracy as "government by the people, especially rule of the majority."
The media reports that democracy is spreading around world as we speak. They herald the fact that democracies are being born in other nations, and direct elections are being held in regions previously ruled by despots and tyrants. That blessed institution of American democracy is being spread worldwide!
If you recall the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, it says "…and to the republic for which it stands."
America is a republic, not a democracy. And while the U.S. was founded on certain democratic principles, and there are some surface similarities between democracies and republics, the two concepts are actually in stark contrast with each other.
Our Founding Fathers understood those differences, and so should we.
In short, a democracy (specifically a direct democracy, i.e. one person = one vote) is rule by the majority, in which the minorities and individuals essentially have no rights at all. The 51% can control the government, leaving the 49% without any say.
A republic, on the other hand, while incorporating certain aspects of democracies such as elections of representatives, strives to protect the rights of individuals and minorities while limiting the power of the majority.
I'm not a political scientist, nor a Constitutional scholar, but I do understand that our Founding Fathers understood the dangers of pure democracies.
In modern times, the term democracy generally has a positive connotation, but democracy itself isn't always positive.
So before we use America and democracy in the same sentence, it would be a good idea to understand what democracy really means, and why America was founded as a republic instead.
James Madison, in Federalist Papers No. 10 stated this:
"Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."
In a speech urging ratification of the Constitution in 1788, Alexander Hamilton said this:
"It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity."
And in the year prior (1787) Hamilton had also said this:
"We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments."
So again, this is just a reminder that democracy is not an accurate description of America's form of government. Some might say I'm splitting hairs, and it's just an issue of semantics — and to an extent that's true. But it's still important to remember that although America was founded on certain democratic principles, thanks to the foresight of our Founding Fathers, America is not, and never has been, a true democracy.
Misconception #4: The legal concept of separation of church and state is found in the Constitution.
Actually no, it's not. The phrase originated in an 1802 letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. In this letter he stated the following:
"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."
The First Amendment to the Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." But it does not say anything about a mutually exclusive separation of church and state, as the concept is understood today. The amendment states that Congress shall not pass a law that establishes an official religion for our nation, and it cannot pass laws that limit the exercise of religion by its citizens.
The framers of our Constitution didn't understand the so-called separation of church and state in the same way as it is interpreted today — that religion has no place at all in government, at the federal, state, county, or even municipal level.
In fact, the United States Capitol regularly served as a church building until well after the Civil War, and approval for the use of the Capitol as a church building was granted by both the House and the Senate. Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson himself, the originator of the phrase "separation of church and state," was president of the Senate at that time. Obviously his understanding of the phrase "separation of church and state" was not the same as our understanding of it today .
Over the last 200+ years, this distorted understanding of the first amendment and the concept of separation of church and state has become commonplace. We assume the Founding Father's intended that nothing religious should ever have anything to do with government (at any level). But when we look at history, we see that this is not the case.
Misconception #5: Freedom of speech means that everyone has the right to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and wherever he wants, and that right is protected by the Constitution.
Americans cherish their right to freedom of speech, and it is protected in the First Amendment of the Constitution:
"Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech"
But look at what that really says. Congress itself shall make no law abridging American citizens' ability to express themselves through speech. (Beginning in 1925, Supreme Court decisions applied the First Amendment to state and local governments as well.)
So does that mean the Constitution protects our right to say whatever we want, whenever we want, and wherever we want? No.
Does the Constitution protect our right to freedom of speech when we interrupt a commencement speaker at a private university so that we can share our views on the matter?
Do we have the right to complain that our Constitutional rights are being infringed upon if we send in a letter to the editor and the newspaper chooses not to print it?
If website owners refuses to publish our comments because they are intentionally argumentative or simply don't apply to the subject of the published post, are those owners limiting our Constitutionally protected freedom of speech? No.
If Congress passes a law that says people will be fined or imprisoned if they talk or write about corruption that is rampant in our government, does that law infringe on our Constitutionally-protected right to freedom of speech? Yes.
There's a well known expression that can help illustrate this concept of the right to freedom of speech. In 1919, Zechariah Chafee, Jr., in an article titled “Freedom of Speech in War Time” wrote the following:
Each side takes the position of the man who was arrested for swinging his arms and hitting another in the nose, and asked the judge if he did not have a right to swing his arms in a free country. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”
In America, our rights extend only to where the rights of others begin.
While the listener at the commencement address has the the right to think what he wants and express his thoughts, he doesn't have the right to interrupt the speech.
And both the newspaper and website publishers, since they own their respective businesses, have a right to control their personal property, which includes limiting what appears in their publications. (The issue of censorship by parties other than the government differs from our Constitutionally-protected freedom of speech, and that is not what I am addressing here.)
Neither the commencement speaker nor the newspaper and website owners actually have the ability to infringe on our rights to freedom of speech. They are not Congress.
So while we as Americans do have freedom of speech, it's important to understand what that really means so that we don't cry infringement ignorantly.
Democracy, freedom of speech, church and state are give rise to misconceptions just by repetition and not facts.