If you go to memeorandum right now, you’ll see that their lead story is a bunch of articles on Christine O’Donnell’s alleged ignorant/stupid/shocking faux pas in her debate with Coons, where she allegedly had no idea that the Constitution establishes the separation of church and state in the First Amendment. Here’s the quote:
The comment came during a debate on WDEL radio with Democratic opponent Chris Coons, who argued that local schools should teach science rather than religion, at which point O’Donnell jumped in. “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” she asked…
The audience at Widener Law School was taken aback, with shouts of “whoa” and laughter coming from the crowd.
Coons then pointed to the First Amendment, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
“You’re telling me the First Amendment does?” O’Donnell interrupted to ask.
Following the next question, Coons revisited the remark — likely thinking he had caught O’Donnell in a flub — saying, “I think you’ve just heard from my opponent in her asking ‘where is the separation of church and state’ show that she has a fundamental misunderstanding.”
“That’s in the First Amendment?” O’Donnell again asked.
“Yes,” Coons responded.
I have read several stories in the MSM that report on the exchange, and so far I have yet to see a discussion of the very real issue that O’Donnell appears to be referencing here. Here’s a typical piece, in the WaPo, which quotes constitutional law professor Erin Daly, as saying that:
…while there are questions about what counts as government promotion of religion, there is little debate over whether the First Amendment prohibits the federal government from making laws establishing religion.
“She seemed genuinely surprised that the principle of separation of church and state derives from the First Amendment, and I think to many of us in the law school that was a surprise,” Daly said. “It’s one thing to not know the 17th Amendment or some of the others, but most Americans do know the basics of the First Amendment.”
I’m genuinely surprised to hear that Daly is surprised by Donnelly, because by his use of the phrase “derived” rather than “stated,” he shows his own awareness that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the First Amendment. I assume he is also aware that there is a school of conservative thought (one with which he probably disagrees, but still, it is a bona fide knowledge-based position) that points out that the phrase does not appear in the First Amendment, which is interpreted more strictly by them as doing two things only:
(1) banning any interference with citizens’ freedom to practice the religion of their choice, as long as the practice does not violate the law of the land (human sacrifice, for example, would be a major problem)
(2) banning the establishment of a state religion (a practice that was common in Europe at the time of the formation of this country)
In other words, it protects the religious individual from state restrictions, and it protects all individuals from the state elevating one particular religion to official status. Let’s look at the words of the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The words “separation of church and state” do not appear there, which Christine O’Donnell’s campaign manager Matt Moran later said was what O’Donnell meant. I don’t have a transcript of the entire debate, so I don’t know if she attempted to clarify this, but if she didn’t, she should have.
However, I think it’s pretty clear from the part of the exchange I have seen that that was the basis of her statement, and that she had in mind the argument by some conservatives that the intent of the First Amendment was never to prohibit the insertion of some religious elements into public schools and public life, and that the courts have gone too far in that regard.
If you actually take a look at those words in the First Amendment, it seems fairly clear that the narrower, conservative interpretation is a valid one. The entire intent of the amendment appears to be to stop the state from interfering with various freedoms of expression, of which religion is but one, rather than to ban religion from public life and public utterance (the founders themselves made constant reference to it, for example). And it is a historical fact that it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the courts extended the prohibition on promotion of a particular religion to the states; before that it was allowed.
Now let’s look at the phrase “separation of church and state:”
The modern concept is often credited to the writings of English philosopher John Locke, but the phrase “separation of church and state” is generally traced to an 1802 letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists…
So it does not appear in the Constitution; only some time afterward. And what Jefferson meant by it does not appear to have been what the phrase has come to mean now in all its manifestations. His letter can be found here, and his words appear to reiterate the aforementioned two principles established by the First Amendment, calling it a “wall of separation between Church & State.”
I have noticed a trend in the MSM that goes like this: the press decides that certain candidates on the right are idiots (Palin and O’Connell come to mind, and Bush before them). There is then a sort of lying-in-wait for the absurd utterance to reveal the utterly moronic nature of that person. However, since the press and pundits are not necessarily brilliant critical thinkers themselves, the utterance they fasten in is often (not always, but often) actually more intelligent than they realize. They may not agree with it, but it is seldom based on nothing, and they reveal their own ignorance in their laughing derision of it.
But the goal is not to understand what the genuine arguments and disagreements are. The goal is to discredit. And in this, they have an ally in the current state of American education on our own traditions and their origins. It is certainly a valid point of view to believe that the development of constitutional law regarding the separation of church and state, and its current state of prohibition on any public or publicly-sponsored official religious expression, is an organic and valid expression of the intent of the Constitution. But to ignore the argument to the contrary, ridicule it, misrepresent it, and/or believe it is laughable, is ignorant. Unfortunately, they get away with it, and in the process we are all harmed.
[NOTE: There’s much more information on the Founders and separation of church and state here and elsewhere online. It’s a huge and complex subject, not easily simplified, except in gotcha politics. For one small example, there’s this:
In setting up the University of Virginia, Jefferson encouraged all the separate sects to have preachers of their own, though there was a constitutional ban on the State supporting a Professorship of Divinity, arising from his own Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Some have argued that this arrangement was “fully compatible with Jefferson’s views on the separation of church and state;” however, others point to Jefferson’s support for a scheme in which students at the University would attend religious worship each morning as evidence that his views were not consistent with strict separation.]