RICHMOND (AP) -- A wide majority of Americans know the U.S. Constitution is important, but less than one-third of them say they've taken the time to read the entire thing.
Results of a nationwide survey released Thursday by the Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier show 86 percent of respondents recognize the importance of the document, the 223-year-old framework for American government.
Thirty-one percent say they think they understand the Constitution 'a lot' and 48 percent say they understand 'some' of it. But only 28 percent say they've read all of the document, and 14 percent say they've read most of it, according to a report by Sean O'Brien, executive director at the Orange, Va., center.
Even though many Americans haven't examined the Constitution itself, O'Brien notes that they do have knowledge of its core ideals, which have become an integral part of American life.
'We don't think twice when we talk about free speech or freedom of the press,' he said in a telephone interview. 'But over 200 years ago -- or until more recently if you were African-American -- those weren't things you could take for granted.'
The survey also found that respondents 18 to 24 years old say they understand the Constitution much less than older people. That's discouraging because younger people presumably should have fresh knowledge from studying American history and government in high school or college. They also said the Constitution doesn't affect them on a day-to-day basis, O'Brien said.
'It's hard to speculate on a hard and fast reason why. You could make some inferences about people's life stages,' he said. 'When you start having kids who use schools, or when you get a job and pay taxes, you might take it upon yourself to learn more.'
The survey of 988 randomly sampled telephone respondents across the United States was conducted in July by the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion and sponsored by the Claude Moore Charitable Foundation. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Among those who reported having read at least some of the Constitution, the survey finds that two-thirds say they last did so in school, while one-third have read it on their own. People who are older than 45 and those who have attended graduate school are more likely to have read it on their own, the report said.
The survey gauged basic knowledge about how the Constitution assigns power to the government. Eighty-nine percent know that making and regulating money is a federal duty, but only 61 percent of respondents know that regulating interstate commerce is a power designated to the federal government.
Fifty-five percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that 'American Constitutionalism is a system in which the government's powers are limited,' while 35 percent agree and 11 percent are unsure.
'Given the Founders' great concern that the national government not become too powerful, it is a bit discouraging that only 35 percent of Americans believe that the Constitution limits government power,' the survey report said. Democrats and those with higher education are more likely than Republicans or independents to believe that the Constitution does limit government power.
Fewer than half of respondents think the Constitution empowers the government to act 'for the common good.' The opinions are sharply divided by political party: 62 percent of those who identified themselves as Democrats think the government is empowered to act for the common good, versus 37 percent of those who identify themselves as Republicans and 37 percent who identify themselves as independents.
Despite that, those older than 35 overwhelmingly (90 percent) believe that the Constitution still works. Black respondents, however, believe at much higher rates than whites that it's time for a new Constitution -- 36 percent, compared to 10 percent.
Current events such as the debate over immigration reform and the national health-care overhaul have drawn recent attention to the Constitution, along with differing interpretations of the document's authority and intent.
'People are putting some things in the Constitution that just aren't there, or they're not aware of things that are in there,' O'Brien said. 'Go and actually read the document, not take the word of someone in the media but take the time to actually read the Constitution.'
The Center for the Constitution is a nonpartisan education center located at Montpelier, the Virginia estate of President James Madison, the Constitution's principal author and architect of the Bill of Rights.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)