Was O'Donnell Right About the "Separation" of Church and State?

Was O'Donnell Right About the "Separation" of Church and State? October 20, 2010

Yesterday, liberal blogs were delighted to find two occasions to mock Tea-Party-associated women.  The first was provided by Sarah Palin, who warned Tea Partiers that they should not yet “party like it’s 1773.”  This got a number of professionally opinionated people, from Markos Moulitsas (of “Daily Kos” fame) to Gwen Ifill, to marvel over Twitter about her stupidity.  Surely she meant 1776!?

Turns out she was referring to the actual Boston Tea Party, which took place in 1773.  In context, the referent is clear.  But bloggers and commentators did not bother to do a little research, so sure were they that they had found another example of the gobsmacking ignorance of Sarah Palin.  Yet they were the ones with egg on their faces.

The second example comes courtesy of Christine O’Donnell.  Now, I am not an O’Donnell fan.  I would rather she win than Coons, but she is not my kind of candidate.  Still, she should be represented honestly.  So what happened?

During a debate at a law school, her opponent, Chris Coons, said that one of the “indispensable principles” of Constitutional law is “the separation of church and state.”  Anyone who is familiar with conservative thought on faith and politics will know that this raises a red flag.  Christine O’Donnell obviously thought that she might be able to back Coons into a trap.

“Where in the Constitution is the separation of Church and State?” she asked O’Donnell.  As the video shows, there is laughter and disbelief in the auditorium; you can hear people in the crowd exclaim, “Oh my God!”  (Later they say, as though addressing her, “You know nothing!  You know nothing!”)  (Surveys consistently show that the great majority of people believe “the wall of separation” is in the Constitution; it is a shame that the same must be said of law students.)

Coons says this question “reveals her fundamental misunderstanding of what our Constitution is, how it is amended, and how it evolves.  The first amendment establishes the separation–” here he pauses, and shifts course, “–and the fact that the federal government shall not establish any religion, and decisional law by the Supreme Court over many decades clarifies and enshrines that there is a separation of church and state that our church and state must respect.”

Coons clearly understands the point she wants to make — that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not actually appear in the First Amendment or anywhere in the Constitution.  The “wall of separation” metaphor comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote, many years after the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written, to a group of Baptists from Danbury, Connecticut (James Madison also sometimes referred to “the separation of church and state”).  O’Donnell is trying to get him to say that “separation of church and state” is in the Constitution.  He is trying to avoid saying that, and wants to say instead that the principle of separation has become enshrined as a matter of Constitutional law through later Supreme Court decisions.

Thus when O’Donnell presses the issue, saying, “You’re telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?”–Coons responds: “The government shall make no establishment of religion.”

Those in the crowd, or at least the most vocal among them, clearly do not understand the debate behind the debate.  The Huffington Post also shows its ignorance, or its unwillingness to explain the nuances of the issue in the midst of its eagerness to paint O’Donnell as a moron, when it leads off its article:

“Republican Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell of Delaware on Tuesday questioned whether the U.S. Constitution calls for a separation of church and state, appearing to disagree or not know that the First Amendment bars the government from establishing religion.”

Yet these are two different things.  Barring the establishment of a state religion is not the same thing as separating religion and government.  Religion and government could work together in any number of ways without the establishment of a state church.  As Daniel Foster points out, O’Donnell has led two organizations that have lobbied Congress to incorporate Christian values into their legislation; she knows the First Amendment and is aware of debates over the issue.

Of course, when you’re in high dudgeon, it’s hard to be corrected.  William Saletan at Slate notes how O’Donnell emphasizes the word “first,” and argues she “it’s the citation that surprises her.”  She “seems incredulous not just at Coons’ position against government-established religion, but that he bases it on the First Amendment.”  To my mind, this is clearly wrong.  She is trying to nail him down, trying to get him to say that the first amendment separates church and state.  Then she will be able to show that he really doesn’t know what it is in the First Amendment.  Coons, to his credit, avoids the trap.  Yet he also gives only a very partial recitation of the First Amendment.

Behind this little tiff is a serious question – debated not only by the Christine O’Donnells of the world, but also be Supreme Court Justices such as Rehnquist and Scalia.  Perhaps a “wall of separation” is not the most helpful metaphor when it comes to the relationship between religious groups and the government.  The establishment and free exercise clauses prohibit the state from establishing an official church or from interfering in church matters; they do not prohibit the church from some forms of involvement in government, and that is why “separation” is a dubious metaphor. Even Jefferson, whose skepticism toward orthodox Christianity is well known, attended church services in the capitol.  He supported the use of government funds for the construction of churches, for chaplains in the military, and even to support missionaries to Native Americans.  None of this made him a Christian Reconstructionist or a Theocrat.

The establishment and free exercise clauses are arguably uni-directional; they prevent the state from interfering in the church.  The “separation” metaphor is bi-directional; neither side can influence the other.  In the context of Jefferson’s broader thought, even he, the coiner of the separation phrase, clearly believed that religion could be involved in some ways in government.  And there are indeed two live options on this issue today.  Liberals by and large want to minimize the role of religion in the public square.  Conservatives believe that religion has a vital, vital role to play in the public square, and that many attempts to chase religion from the public square actually “interfere with the free exercise thereof.”  Thus Scalia has objected that the “wall” metaphor has functioned as a “bulldozer” to remove religion from the public square.

Unfortunately, Coons was not willing to explain the issue fully, and O’Donnell never did.  This is a teachable moment over a legitimate disagreement on the Constitution and constitutional law, but, unsurprisingly, it is passing by with a lot of sound and fury but very little actual edification.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Evangelical
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tim McGuire

    Actually, she’s been misquoted, I think deliberately here. The middle portion of her question was dropped out: “The First Amendment does? … So you’re telling me that the separation of church and state, the phrase ‘separation of church and state,’ is in the First Amendment?”
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/19/AR2010101902501.html
    There’s no ambiguity when you include the entire query.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I listened to the video, but I must have failed to hear “the phrase.” But even apart from that, I thought it was perfectly clear that she was trying to back him up into saying that those words were in the First Amendment. It is a common mistake to believe that the language of separation is in the Constitution. Again, it’s to his credit that he knew better. This is not a matter of Coons performing poorly. It’s a matter of people leaping to a conclusion on the basis of the presumption of O’Donnell’s ignorance.

  • Pingback: Timothy Dalrymple()

  • A fine blog post. I covered some of the same ground in my post to the Jesus Creed. I disagree with the actual formulation you use regarding what the 1st bars: “Barring the establishment of a state religion is not the same thing as separating religion and government. ” The 1st actually does not bar “the state”, it bars the Fed gov, but allows the states to continue their establishments of religion without Fed/Congressional interference. Both the states and the Feds are “state”–so I think you’re just sliding semantically between the two. The 1st does not do that: it protects the establishments in 9 of the several states, while protecting also the non-establishments in the 4 remaining states. As long as the Feds are not making laws (or, flashing forward, using economic sanctions), as written the 1st leaves open the possiblity that a state may wish to dis-establish, while another may wish to move from non-establishment to a new establishment of a religion in that second-case state.

    An originalist approach to the Constitution provides grounds for, say, a vastly increased Muslim population in a future America to vote in Sharia, state by state, wherever Islam prevails. This woud be the gradual islamization of America without throwing out the Fed Constitution. (Probably some flaws in my thawt experiment here, but not entirely wrong either.)

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Excellent comment, Albert. You’re right that I was using “the state” merely to refer to “government,” but you are also right that I should have specified “the federal government.” Thank you.

  • Pingback: Timothy Dalrymple()