First things first

Republican candidate Christine O'Donnell answers a question as Democratic candidate Chris Coons listens during a Delaware Senate debate at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, October 13, 2010. UPI Photo/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool Photo via Newscom

So this past weekend former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was giving a speech at a Tea Party event and told the crowd that they couldn’t “party like it’s 1773″ until enough conservatives were elected to Congress to make a difference. The reference to the Boston Tea Party was obvious enough to the Los Angeles Times that they didn’t bother explaining its significance to readers.

Perhaps they should have.

Folks like Daily Kos’ Markos Moulitsas and PBS host Gwen Ifill apparently thought that Palin had been confused. Moulitsas sarcastically commented, “She’s so smart,” while Ifill simply said, “ummmmm.” You would think that after a year like this, the pundits and journalists would know a bit more about Tea Party history.

Anyway, I thought of that when reading a few of the more breathless accounts of the debate between Delaware Senate candidates Chris Coons and Christine O’Donnell. O’Donnell noted that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution. It doesn’t. The oft-repeated phrase appears in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in 1802.

I’m a strict separationist myself, meaning that I think the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment should be interpreted as strictly as possible. But I’ve also read enough Supreme Court opinions to know that my view is not universally accepted.

For instance, here’s a Washington Post lede from way back in April:

A splintered Supreme Court displayed its deep divisions over the separation of church and state Wednesday, with the court’s prevailing conservatives signaling a broader openness to the idea that the Constitution does not require the removal of religious symbols from public land.

So while most reporters and other elites tend to favor a strict separation — sometimes to the extreme of a “naked public square,” that view is not universal among all jurists. That Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey on religious knowledge found that “many Americans think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are tighter than they really are,” for instance. And the “separation” phrase itself is not, as O’Donnell said, in the Constitution.

But no matter. Reporters took to Twitter to freak out over O’Donnell’s statement. Here’s a sample from a Wired reporter.

Crowd gasps as O’Donnell reveals ignorance of First Amendment —

And it led to a bunch of stories. I’m not entirely convinced that this particular Senate race deserves, say, 1/1000th of the coverage it has received. Of open seats, it has to be one of the less competitive races out there. But, then again, I didn’t quite see the logic in the 24-7 coverage of the Koran burn threat. I’m in the minority on all of these new coverage decisions.

The story fit the preferred narrative for this particular race, though. And other details — such as Coons’ apparent inability to identify the other First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, assembly and petition — weren’t mentioned in the mainstream reports. Although that did make it into a Politico reported “forum” of some kind. It reminds me a bit of the 2008 campaign season, in that regard.

Meanwhile, here’s the Associated Press article, for what it’s worth. At least that article provides quotes that show what O’Donnell actually said. This Washington Post video that accompanied the story pulled Sherrod-style editing on the debate for dramatic effect. You can see other examples here.

I should disclose, I suppose, that my husband was one of the early people to write against O’Donnell’s candidacy and that I have been on record expressing negative views about her. And, further, during this debate with Coons, his Yale Law School education helped him a great deal over O’Donnell’s floundering grasp of the 16th amendment and others. And even if her interpretation of the First Amendment was mischaracterized, her defense was still weak.

The fact is that there was more than enough to work with, journalistically speaking, from this debate. But it’s only fair to point out that not everyone has the same view of separation of church and state and how the establishment and free exercise clauses should be interpreted. And it’s not exactly uncommon to find people who think that the courts have, at times, gone too far in one direction or the other.

To that end, I thought that Elizabeth Tenety’s piece for the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” site did a good job of putting the candidates’ First Amendment positions in context of that larger debate.

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  • Nick Farley

    I continue to stand amazed at the ignorance of those who continue argue “separation of church and state” when the amendment states that the government will not set up a state recognized church and forbid religious freedom. Those who holler “separation of church and state” have done all they can do to remove Christianity from the scene in American while providing all kinds of freedom and support to every other religious group including atheism, also a religious practice. The same people who whould fight for separation of church and state are generally the same ones who support the right of the Muslims to built the Mosque near ground zero. I have become amazed at what has happened to our country in my lifetime. I never thought I would see us become so anti-Christian and so pro every other ideology.

  • Bruce

    It is accurate that the Constitution does not contain the exact words “seperation of church and state”, but the interpretation by the courts over the years of our republic have established this phrase as a reality. Knowing the writings of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, one would come to the conclusion that they would generlly agree with the notion of seperation of church and state as the courts have in the past.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Off-topic: a few years back, I attended a local political debate in which one candidate was asked for his views on the 2nd Amendment. He replied, “Which one is that?” He was elected and remains in office today.

    Back on topic: Do journalism programs have any kind of civics, history, or other “non-journalism” requirements? It seems like that would be helpful in all sorts of ways.

  • tmatt

    I have just spiked a wave of comments that have nothing to do with MZ’s post about the journalism issues in this story. As usual, many comments went straight after the political content and started bashing away.

    Come on, people!

  • Mollie

    I have also spiked a wave of comments. Please keep focused on discussion of media issues.

  • Ray Ingles

    Tmatt, Mollie – and Nick Farley’s comment survived the wave of spikes?

  • tmatt


    It came first and set the dominoes falling.

    I did not feel that I could spike the entire row, but simply get several of them and try to point the discussion in the correct direction.

  • mer

    I can see that when O’Donnell first said “where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state,” we could interpret that as a position on the interpretation of the First Amendment. But then after Coons (slightly misquoting, but still) says “Congress shall make no establishment regarding religion,” O’Donnell replies, “That’s in the First Amendment?” To be honest, this comes off more as simple ignorance than a true position on separation of church and state. To me, it seems like O’Donnell has heard that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not included in the Constitution, but it also seems like she doesn’t actually know what the First Amendment states.

  • Dave

    I’m not entirely convinced that this particular Senate race deserves, say, 1/1000th of the coverage it has received. [...] But, then again, I didn’t quite see the logic in the 24-7 coverage of the Koran burn threat. I’m in the minority on all of these new coverage decisions.

    The logic seems to be that religious news that may induce outrage will sell more papers… oops, I mean grab more eyeballs.

  • MattK

    How much of this bad reporting is because of reporter stupidity/incompetence and how much is because of them just not being interested in the things in which we are interested?

  • joseph

    maybe readers wouldn’t comment on the political content, if Mollie hadn’t made it the focal point of her story. no matter how hard she tries to hide it, she’s an apologist for loony right in this country. it’s so ridiculous to have Mollie or any other writer make political points, but comments get spiked if they touch on them.

    as TMATT, says, “come on, people.” *rolls eyes*

  • Perpetua

    I heard an audio from the same debate where O’Donnell asked Coons to name the five freedoms in the 1st Amendment and he couldn’t name them. I think he only knew freedom of religion but not press, speech, assembly and petition. Then he said only the moderator should ask the questions.

  • Jerry

    I’m not sure if joseph’s comment will be spiked or not, but I don’t agree that she’s an apologist for loony right although I’ve been very upset with some of what she’s written and felt that she’s been biased on more than one occasion.

    I think partly Mollie’s too idealistic about people’s innate virtues at least in this time and place. Edmund Burke has it right when he said:

    “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsel of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

    I’ve seen law after law passed because of the lack of virtue in people. To throw out the laws would lead to the same problems as we’ve seen in the recent banking crisis to name but one example.

    But specifically to the latest kerfluffle, there’s a difference between someone who knows the law and the history of constitutional decisions making a reasoned case and someone advocating in effect a revolution where we throw out all the supreme court decisions about the first amendment and presumably their decisions in many more areas.

    Her radical revolutionary and absolutist stance I think contributed to those who assumed she did not only mean the actual tea party but was actually calling for a, presumably peaceful, revolution.

    But, turning my chair around, I was reminded by the God In America series how anti-authoritarianism is one of the streams that make up America – the feeling that we’re all entitled to make up our own minds about “scripture”, whether Biblical or Constitutional. The catch is that right comes with the responsibility to be people of virtue and sober judgment.

    And for what it’s worth, I also agree with Mollie’s statement that entirely too much attention is being paid to her and a few others. That is a direct outcome of what Edmund Burke said: the lack of virtue also applies to too many in the media due to greed, desire for notoriety etc.

  • Perpetua

    My point was that articles that don’t include this later part of the debate create a false impression. Clearly O’Donnell understood the 1st Amendment as providing five freedoms while Coons understood it as “separation of church and state”. A good article would cover this.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    I’ll ditto mer’s comment. After watching the unedited section of video, it seemed pretty clear to me that she was doubting the existence of the Establishment Clause. Beyond that, she failed to engage Coons’ explanation that understanding the Constitution in 2010 requires some understanding of the SCOTUS cases that established what has become settled law concerning application of the Constitution. Either one can agree or disagree with those cases, but ignoring them is not an option.

    Therefore I’d say the MSM critiques of O’Donnell regarding her understanding of the First Amendment were generally on target.

  • Perpetua

    Well, mer says:

    but it also seems like she doesn’t actually know what the First Amendment states.

    But she did know the 1st amendment provides five freedoms and new what they were and Coons didn’t know that. So, a good article would be balanced that way, I would think.

  • Perpetua

    Remember, at the time of the establishment of the USA, the Constitution was not forbidding the establishment of religion by the individual states. Many of the individual states did have an established religion. The 1st amendment was merely protecting the people from a federal imposition of an established religion.

  • Steve Cornell

    Aside from the debate about what Christine O’Donnell actually knew about the First Amendment, correcting the distorted notions about it “separating church and state” is a worthy project.

    Revisiting the separation of Church and State:

  • tmatt


    It is amazing how the MSM seems to agree with you and vice versa, which means that the views of people who disagree with you do not need to be represented in a dialogue or debate in which both sides are treated fairly and accurately.

    Just saying.

    Remember, MZ is the right winger for wanting the views on both sides covered accurately. That’s right wing, it seems.

    Oh, and how do you KNOW what O’Donnell was thinking? All we know for sure right now is that she is being misquoted. She said something that was accurate. I think it would take follow-up questions to determine if she meant something OTHER than the words that she spoke.

    I say this as a guy with a master’s in church-state separation studies and I’m pretty much a strict constructionist on these matters, which means I would almost certainly disagree with O’Donnell more than I would agree with her in this arena.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Actually, on one Catholic internet site they had the WaPost version of this story and it was quite fair in that it brought up the business of how the phrase in dispute is NOT in the U.S. Constitution and the source is elsewhere. They even looked at the question of what O’Donnell meant considering the poor follow-up that seemed to play into other’s ignorance of the First Amendment. Unfortunately it seems like most of the rest of the mass media has a blood lust to destroy O’Donnell so why bother with truth (if they even knew it) or competent research.

    One question is, are we going to start making it a requirement that our elected reps (like we seem to require of judges) all be lawyers so they can handle issues debate-style even though competent legal advisors are easily available to both elected officials and judges to guide them through the weeds of surprisingly complicated issues.

    Some would say this issue is not complicated at all. However, O’Donnell’s opponent apparently got it partially wrong and much of the media got it very wrong. But she got virtually all the bad press.

  • Dave

    One question is, are we going to start making it a requirement that our elected reps [...] all be lawyers

    It’s completely reasonable to expect candidates to be familiar with the rudiments of the Constitution. Practically that can’t be made a de jure requirement but the media can make it one de facto by covering stories like this. Better.

  • Jim Davis

    Thanks much for posting this, Mollie. I used a bit of the material for a Facebook thread. Many of the comments there came from people who were aghast at O’Donnell, but said nothing of Coons’ ignorance. They probably didn’t even know about it.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. Facts are neither right nor left wing. We don’t know what she was thinking. We do know what she said. Here is the exchange:

    Chris Coons:… “government shall make no establishment of religion.”

    O’Donnell: “That’s in the First Amendment?”

    Listening and watching the video, she was clearly attempting to continue her attack on the Constitutional grounding of church/state separation. But she was responding specifically to what Coons said — close to a direct quote of the Establishment Clause — as if that wording (like the exact phrase “separation of church and state”) were not in the document.

    It is what it is, as the young folks say.

    There were other parts of her presentation that were arguable, in the sense that both sides need to be treated fairly. But fairness does not require journalists to find an “on the other hand” for actual errors.

    (I’d suggest that her attempt to draw a parallel between government imposing a particular teaching in a church and prohibiting the teaching of religion as science in public schools is also a counter-factual reading of settled Constitutional law, but we might disagree about that…)

  • Dave

    I’d suggest that her attempt to draw a parallel between government imposing a particular teaching in a church and prohibiting the teaching of religion as science in public schools is also a counter-factual reading of settled Constitutional law, but we might disagree about that…

    Or we might not disagree… ;-)

    Referring to my earlier remark, it’s reasonable to expect candidates to know the status of issues like this and not just repeat interest-group boilerplate. But it’s a bit much to expect journalist to call her on it if it’s a policy in flux, which I believe this is.

  • GhaleonQ

    Indeed. Media coverage was spon-on, as others have noted. The ambiguity was cleared up after she returned to it and asked the rhetorical question. My interpretation is that she repeated Mollie’s argument so often (true, although subject to a host of caveats) that she genuinely blotted out knowledge of what it DOES say. I’m surprised Get Religion’s on the (pretty clearly) wrong side of this one, since there was room for criticism for both sides here.

  • Mollie


    If I, a strong O’Donnell CRITIC am “an apologist for loony right in this country,” what type of slur do you reserve for the millions of people who actually support her?


    It’s not “my” argument. Remember, I’m a strict separationist. I actually agree with Thomas Jefferson that their should be a wall of separation between church and state. I interpret that as strict as anyone. I’m just well read enough to know that those who think that, say, President Obama or President Bush should have a faith-based initiative office, will note that the separation of church and state phrase is not in the Constitution.

    Jeffrey Weiss,

    You literally pick out 12 words in a debate with thousands of words, avoiding the ones that show she was pointing out that the phrase separation of church and state is not in the constitution, avoiding Coons’ confusion or ignorance about the rest of the First Amendment — and then say that you’re simply stating what she said? That’s silly.

  • Mollie

    WOW. Check out the original AP/WashPost hit piece on O’Donnell.

    I think that they should have notified people that their rewrite was so substantially different.

  • John Pack Lambert

    O’Donnell is a Catholic. Catholics who know the story of the line “seperation of Church and state” know it has been used as a club to beat the Catholic Church.

    It was introduced into Supreme Court speech by the anti-Catholic bigot and former Ku Klux Klan member (he was a member of the KKK, that is for real, and the extremely anti-Catholic, second KKK at that) Hugo Black.

    In some ways it was a Trojan Horse introduction. However it is not just “seperation of Church and state” but a “wall of Seperation of Church and state”.

    About 40 years ago then dean of the University of Chicago Law School, Dr. Dallin H. Oaks, wrote about how this wall was problematic if it was big enough for a bus to go through (except when taking children to basketball games).

    The huge rise in property taxes to fund the growing public school system in the post-World War II era was a major burden on Catholic parents, and to accept the “seperation of Church and state” is to accept the ideas of the failed Blaine admendment. This admendment was advanced by cartoons portraying Cardinals and crocadiles.

    Thus, the media outrage at O’Donnell saying there is not seperation of Church and state is very close to the media failure to properly identify O’Donnell’s religion.

    I am also at the point of being sick enough of the Ivy league elites that the fact that her opponant went to Yale Law School is reason enough for me to want her to win.

  • GhaleonQ

    I realized I should have been far more clear (I’m an LCMS-er, so I understand your viewpoint). “The argument that you presented,” which is fairly common among evangelical, non-orthodox, conservative denominations, is what I originally thought. I agree with most of the back end of the post, including contextualizing the aforementioned argument and how it differed from O’Donnell’s. That’ll teach me to dash off a comment before heading to class.