Christine O'Donnell addresses the crowd during meeting of the '9/12 Delaware Patriots' at the Bowers Beach Fire Hall, September 1, 2010, in Bowers, Delaware. (Gary Emeigh/MCT)I’ve already blogged about the militant Religious Rightist and walking train-wreck, Christine O’Donnell, who’s running for US Senate from Delaware. As one might expect, she continuously spews Religious Rightist talking points. Recently she hammered away at one which is especially used by theocrats. The New York Times Caucus blog reports on her caterwauling (WebCite cached article):

Christine O’Donnell, the Republican candidate for Senate in Delaware, on Tuesday appeared to question whether the First Amendment to the Constitution imposes a separation between church and state.

Here, the Times is much too circumspect and generous toward O’Donnell. It cannot reasonably be said that she only “appeared” to question whether separation of church and state is called for. The truth is that she did, in fact, very clearly question it.

“Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” Ms. O’Donnell asked [her opponent, Democrat Chris Coons], according to audio posted on the Web site of WDEL 1150 AM radio, which co-sponsored the debate.

I’m no Constitutional scholar, nor even a lawyer, but I can answer that. Those words are not in the Constitution at all … but that admission does not mean the Bill of Rights does not call for it. Her audience, of course, knew this:

The audience at the law school can be heard breaking out in laughter.

It’s quite clear — from these words which she said, of her own volition — that Ms O’Donnell does not think “separation of church and state” is Constitutional. However, that hasn’t stopped her campaign from backing away from this position:

Matt Moran, Ms. O’Donnell’s campaign manager, wrote in a statement after the debate that “Christine O’Donnell was not questioning the concept of separation of church and state as subsequently established by the courts.”

“She simply made the point that the phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution,” Mr. Moran said.

But there is no rational reason for her to have pointed out that those words are not in the Constitution, except to suggest that “separation of church and state” is not Constitutional. This attempt at backpedalling, then, simply doesn’t work.

For the record, the man who wrote the First Amendment, James Madison, clearly stated his intentions; he definitely wanted there to be a “wall” dividing church and state, even if he did not happen to have included the phrase when he wrote it. Here are his own words on the subject (cached), written a couple decades later (c. 1817), providing his perspective on the principle and on a couple of ways he believed it ought to have been applied (all spellings per Madison’s original text):

The danger of silent accumulations & encroachments by Ecclesiastical Bodies have not sufficiently engaged attention in the U. S. … If some of the States have not embraced this just and this truly Xn principle in its proper latitude, all of them present examples by which the most enlightened States of the old world may be instructed; and there is one State at least, Virginia, where religious liberty is placed on its true foundation and is defined in its full latitude. The general principle is contained in her declaration of rights, prefixed to her Constitution: but it is unfolded and defined, in its precise extent, in the act of the Legislature, usually named the Religious Bill, which passed into a law in the year 1786 [i.e. the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom]. Here the separation between the authority of human laws, and the natural rights of Man excepted from the grant on which all political authority is founded, is traced as distinctly as words can admit, and the limits to this authority established with as much solemnity as the forms of legislation can express. The law has the further advantage of having been the result of a formal appeal to the sense of the Community and a deliberate sanction of a vast majority, comprizing every sect of Christians in the State. This act is a true standard of Religious liberty: its principle the great barrier agst usurpations on the rights of conscience. …

Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?

In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation.

The establishment of the chaplainship to Congs is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles: The tenets of the chaplains elected [by the majority] shut the door of worship agst the members whose creeds & consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority. …

Better also to disarm in the same way, the precedent of Chaplainships for the army and navy, than erect them into a political authority in matters of religion. The object of this establishment is seducing; the motive to it is laudable. But is it not safer to adhere to a right pinciple, and trust to its consequences, than confide in the reasoning however specious in favor of a wrong one. …

Religious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings & fasts are shoots from the same root with the legislative acts reviewed.

Altho’ recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.

The objections to them are 1. that Govts ought not to interpose in relation to those subject to their authority but in cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory Govt is a contradiction in terms. 2. The members of a Govt as such can in no sense, be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation, Council, or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people.

To be clear, then, Madison — the author of the First Amendment — believes that Congressional and military chaplaincies are impermissible, as are executive proclamations of thanksgiving and holy days.

Also, I will reiterate Madison’s opening line in this document, which outlines what he addresses in the rest:

The danger of silent accumulations & encroachments by Ecclesiastical Bodies have not sufficiently engaged attention in the U. S.

He was concerned that “Ecclesiastical Bodies” were encroaching on the states … and considered that the First Amendment, which he had written, was supposed to have prevented it. I’m not sure how much clearer this principle can be. Even if the First Amendment does not contain the precise phrase “separation of church and state,” there can be no doubt — based on what Madison himself had to say about the matter — that this is what he had intended it to provide.

The bottom line is that Ms O’Donnell is wrong to want to have it both ways: She wants to convince Religious Rightists, especially of the dominionist/theocratic variety, that she opposes separation of church and state, yet at the same time concede to the rest of the country that the courts have, in fact, ruled that it does exist, even in spite of that exact phrase not being found in the Constitution. But this is irrational. She cannot logically hold both of these positions … even if she would like to.

Photo credit: Gary Emeigh/MCT via Christian Science Monitor.

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4 Responses to “O’Donnell Questions Separation Of Church And State”
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