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Friday, October 22, 2010


Now that my fifty page response to Luke's Mother is ended, I can return to the follies, foibles, and foolishness of the political class. Those of you who are, like me, obsessively involved with the ephemera of the passing political scene will be familiar with the latest flap surrounding the egregious Republican candidate for Senator in Delaware, Christine O'Donnell. In her debate with her Democratic opponent, at one point she challenged his statements about religious tolerance and the separation of church and state by asking, "Where is the separation of church and state in the Constitution?" When Chris Coons read her a little lesson about the First Amendment, she plowed right in again. "Are you telling me that separation of church and state is in the First Amendment?" The audience, composed mostly of law students and faculty, groaned and laughed, and she flashed them a triumphant smile, all perfect teeth and hair, as if to say, "I really showed him, didn't I?" This little vignette then went viral, being played so often you would have thought she had flashed a breast. Rachel Maddow did an entire segment on it in her nightly show. The kicker came when reports surfaced that O'Donnell and her team thought she had scored a knockout punch in the exchange, and were astonished to discover that the rest of the world thought she had lost badly.

I think I know what is going on here, and since Rachel Maddow is really, really smart [I cannot speak for the rest of the punditocracy], I would be willing to bet that she knows too. It is actually worth spelling it out, even though it will take a little while, because it is a perfect example of the alternative world in which the rightwing lives. It is also a good example of the sort of deep thinking that leads conservatives to say that the Republican Party is the "party of ideas."

Elementary facts first. Christine O'Donnell is perfectly correct that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution [or in the Declaration of Independence, or even in Jefferson's Letter on Toleration."] What does appear is the following phrase: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." To eighteenth century Englishmen, the clear reference of this phrase is to the Established Church of England, the Anglican Church. In a state with an established church, the law requires those holding government office [no matter how local and insignificant] to be communicants of the official church. [That is why Karl Marx's father, a lawyer and the descendant of a long line of rabbis, converted to Christianity before Karl's birth.] In such a state, the law requires that the ruler be the head of that church and it may forbid the practice of any other religion. Iran and Saudi Arabia are states with an established religion. So are Israel and the Vatican. In England, what was at issue was the status of dissenting religionists -- Presbyterians, Unitarians, Congregationalists, Quakers, and the like. It was taken for granted that everyone would be Christian, even the hated Catholics. As for the Jews, they were tolerated when the crown needed money and driven out of England when it did not. Needless to say, Muslims did not come into it at all. To the American Colonists, many of whom were descended from settlers who had left England to avoid the disadvantages and proscriptions of Establishment, that first clause of the First Amendment clearly ruled out the sort of Establishment of religion from which they had fled. [All of this gave rise to endless debates, with some people defending establishment, some attacking it, and some attacking those who attacked it. This gave rise to what as a boy I learned as the longest word in the English language: antidisestablishmentarianism.]

A long series of Supreme Court cases has substantially broadened the scope and application of that clause in the First Amendment, but there are a great many Americans on the right who are bitterly opposed to that broadening. They wish to have it proclaimed and enforced that America is a Christian nation, in which non-Christians of any sort live on sufferance and as second-class citizens. They are quite well aware of the legal history, but they think, stare decisis to the contrary notwithstanding, that the Supreme Court should reverse that history and return to the "original intent" of the Founding Fathers. In their Right Wing think tanks, in which they endlessly rehearse these arguments, echoing one another's convictions, a shorthand way of summarizing their view comes to be the one-liner, "Where do the words 'separation of church and state' appear in the Constitution?" At the end of a long day decrying the evils of secularism and liberalism, they repair to a nearby pub to relax. After a few rounds, when the lamest retort is starting to sound witty, they regale one another by saying, "Where are the words separation of church and state in the Constitution?" This is accompanied by much snarking and snickering and yuks all around.

Enter Christine O'Donnell, all teeth and hair and naked ambition, but with not a great deal in the way of brains. She spends one intense life-changing week at a rightwing seminar on Constitutional Law at an Institute in Claremont, where she no doubts picks up this catchphrase, though perhaps not with much in the way of background and explication. In the circles in which she travels, that one-liner is always good for nods and applause and smiles of approval, so when she appears in a televised senatorial debate -- clueless about the context or the sentiments of her audience -- she seizes the opportunity to drop this tested line on her opponent, and turns to the audience, awaiting the approval and applause that she has come to expect.

That, I think, explains what happened during that debate, and her puzzled reaction to the universal scorn she reaped as her reward.

Is this important? Not really. She will lose, and then live for many years off the unspent campaign funds she has collected [that seems to be her principal source of income.] But I do think it is useful for us on the left to think our way into the minds of our enemies, from time to time.


Charles Richard Booher II said...

I can attest to the use of this line in right-wing circles by the utterly misinformed. My father is a fundamentalist Christian pastor. When I was a teenager and we once came to intellectual blows over the issue of separation of church and state, he spurted out this line about separation of church and state not being in the constitution. Being at the time in my high school Government course, I was able to offer him some simple exegesis of the first amendment and to explain the intent behind it as well as a bit about the history of its interpretation. He was unmoved, however, and I have heard him utter this nonsense ever since. I believe that he was once given this line at a right-wing conference at some time, as well.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you for the confirmation. My sister asked me how I knew such things and I said, truthfully, that I intuit them. It was the only explanation that made sense out of what was otherwise totally puzzling -- not merely stupid -- behavior on O'Donnell's part.