Poor ConstitutionOctober 20, 2010
Christine O'Donnell, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Delaware who is not a witch, recently demonstrated a poor of understanding of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. After Democratic candidate Chris Coons argued that the First Amendment established the separation of church and state, O'Donnell sarcastically asked, "The First Amendment does?" She then added, "Let me just clarify: You're telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?" Coons responded by quoting part of the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." O'Donnell then responded by again asking sarcastically--as if she thought Coons had made a big gaffe--"That's in the First Amendment?" Despite her giddy tone, O'Donnell was the one making the big gaffe. Although she correctly noted that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution, that does not mean the concept is not constitutional. After all, the Constitution also does not say we should have "free and fair elections," but that is a basic democratic right afforded to us by the Constitution. Additionally, O'Donnell further demonstrated that she did not understand what the First Amendment means when she even questioned Coons after he quoted part of the First Amendment. She also got stumped in the debate when asked about the 14th and 16th Amendments that some in the "TEA Party" movement want to repeal. Her defense of not knowing them was: "Fortunately, senators don't have to memorize the Constitution." But should we not at least expect them to understand it, especially the basic religious freedoms granted by the First Amendment? O'Donnell has virtually no chance of winning the election, but her sentiment represents the views of many who wrongly attempt to undermine our basic religious rights and protections. For instance, the Republican candidate for Minnesota Secretary of State also recently attacked the concept of separation of church and state, claiming "[t]here is no such thing" and that "it just does not exist."
Charles C. Haynes, Senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and Director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, addressed the attacks by O'Donnell and others:
It is unfortunate, even dangerous, that the principle of separation has been demonized in the culture wars as something alien to the Constitution. Church-state separation is, after all, a founding principle of the United States.Amen! As I note in my forthcoming book (Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics), attacking the separation of church and state has become a common staple in American political campaigns. Hopefully, anyone wishing to take an oath of office to uphold the Constitution will decide to actually support our religious freedoms spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.