Christine O’Donnell and The Establishment Clause

A few days ago, I ran a post on Delaware Tea Party candidate for Senator, Christine O’Donnell, and her ignorance of key aspects of the United States Constitution, a centerpiece of her campaign and the Tea Party movement. One thing that she appeared to be shockingly ignorant of was the Establishment Clause within the First Amendment. If you watch the video, which I’ll re-post at the end of this post, you’ll see that she appears to be very surprised by the news of the existence of a clause indicating a Separation of Church and State (if you don’t want to watch the entire video, just go to about 2:40). This, understandably, gets her laughed at by an auditorium full of law students and faculty.

A commenter, billy bob, has pointed out that there may be more to this issue than originally meets the eye – well, my eye at least.

billy bob writes:

There has been some talk that she was joking, but the reality is that the First Amendment doesn’t say there should be a separation of Church and State:

1 Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This isn’t to say shes ‘right’ just that shes not wrong in her claims. Every bill in the USA has ‘In god we trust”, at the time the Constitution was written the USA was a religious state, the intent of the first amendment has only come to mean a separation of church in recent times.

Good eye, BB. The issue is not quite as straight forward as I had originally thought. I was originally going to simply reply to BB’s comment in the thread, but I realized it was worthy of a full post. However, because I’m a bit sick right now I’m going to save myself a bit of effort by cutting and pasting the comment reply that I was going to post in the comment section. Here it is:

The “In God We Trust” inscription on money was introduced during the Cold War.

As to what was intended originally by “no law respecting an establishment of religion”, it does seem to be open to interpretation, so I guess we’d have to go back and figure out the most likely intent, as implied by other writings and decisions made by the Founding Fathers. Saying that no law shall be made respecting the establishment of religion can very easily and honestly be interpreted as having nothing to do with publicly-funded education. However, times were different in the late 1700s when the Constitution was written. I’m not sure about how developed public education was at the time (but probably minimally at best), but compulsory – as in, legally-required – education for children was not yet required. Moreover, there wasn’t a debate about natural versus divine origins of life, and it was a very Christian time in America (more so..). So there was no need and probably no thought given to extending the Establishment Clause into education. But, now there is compulsory education, a publicly-funded education system, far more religious diversity, and an international scientific juggernaut that has substantiated a naturalistic account of speciation and thoroughly bitch-slapped Creationism (and Creationism 2.0, Intelligent Design) back to the Dark Ages. With education being compulsory for the young, and funding of it being required of workers, it is clearly an issue of law. Moreover, it can hardly be argued that the intent of the Constitution was to protect individuals from being forcibly subjected to or put in the service of a religion against their will. Europeans who didn’t want to practice religion the prescribed way came to the New World to escape that. To begin treating Christianity – any form of it – as taking precedent over other religions in the public sphere would be to directly undermine a fundamental pillar of America.

A few more relevant thoughts that have come to mind:

(Note: these are not addressed to BB)

Some on the Religious Right have claimed that evolution – or “Darwinism” – is a religion in itself. Thus, if it can be taught, so can Creationism. And if Creationism can’t be taught, neither can it. Bollocks. Science is a neutral playing field. If a school of religious thought can present an idea that can hold it together under scientific scrutiny (say, for example, the way that meditation has been shown to be beneficial), then it gets to have a seat in the science classroom. Now, it may be argued that science is inherently anti-religion because its foundations include naturalistic explanation, as opposed to magical/supernatural explanations. There are ways around this, too. Try doing a study on the efficacy of prayer. They did. No effect. Try finding remnants of Noah’s Arc or The Flood. They have. Nada. Show that geology and archaeology are wrong so as to reopen the question of a 6,000 year old world. Create a new religious text that isn’t chock full of internal contradiction, contradiction with science and history, vagueness, and moral confusion. Write scripture that makes and hits on a clearly specified prophecy once in a while. Show us God!

Before I end this, I just want to thank BB for his comment and pointing out that the connection between the Establishment Clause and Separation of Church and State isn’t quite as straightforward as I had thought. You got me to think about it, do some reading, and it motivated me to do a post, which I haven’t done in a few days due to being under the weather.

As promised, here is the video of Christine O’Donnell. She is debating electoral opponent Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware.


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