Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dissecting Christine O'Donnell and Rush Limbaugh

In the type of comment that she has become famous for, Christine O'Donnell wondered whether the term "separation of church and state" resides in the Constitution.  O'Donnell in a debate with here opponent (and the next senator from Delaware) said "You’re telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?” The mainstream media was quick to pounce on her.  CNN Commentator Stephen Prothero (a religion professor) linked O'Donnell to Homer Simpson when here opponent recited the words of the Amendment and she expressed surprise that was how the clause is worded.  Prothero goes on to gloat "In fact, in a quiz I gave Boston University students a few years ago, only 41 percent were able to name the free exercise clause, only 23 percent the establishment clause."  Rush Limbaugh tried to defend O'Donnell.

As a reminder the First Amendment states "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."

But there is a more fundamental issue here.  The establishment clause (which is highlighted in red above) says Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.   Under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment the establishment clause has been widened significantly.  I believe you can make a case that the widening has been far in excess of what a reasonable interpretation of the religion clause states.   Liberals forget that there is also the second part of the religious guarantee about free exercise.  The American Civil Liberties Union seems to forget the second clause is even there.  Legal opinion has used the establishment clause to go well beyond what most scholars believe was intended in the establishment clause by prohibiting any display of religious activity in the public square.  While I am in no way defending O'Donnell's remarks, there is a balance here that people like Prothero seem to forget.   The Constitutional debates tried to achieve a balance between state imposed religions and the ability of individual citizens to practice their beliefs.  There is some evidence that the term religion when used in the context of Eighteenth Century language meant a denomination. (As in the Church of England)   So while I do not celebrate O'Donnell's lack of understanding of basic issues in the First Amendment, I also would argue that many on the left also fail to grasp the nature of the guarantees offered in those words.

No comments: