Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Church, State and the First Amendment: What Coons needs to know

I read this article by Ken Paulson, the President of the First Amendment Center and had to respond to almost everything he wrote.

Church, State and the First Amendment: What O’Donnell needs to know

Sometimes political debates generate light as well as heat.

Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell's question "Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?" in an exchange Oct. 19 over teaching creationism in public schools tells us something about her but also reminds us of how often America's bedrock principles on government and religion are misunderstood.

Democratic candidate Chris Coons was quick to tell O'Donnell that religion and government are kept separate by the First Amendment.

"You're telling me that's in the First Amendment?" she responded.

Indeed it is.

Indeed it is NOT!  O'Donnell explicitly asks where in the Constitution the words "separation of church and state" appear and when Coons wrongly asserts it is in the First Amendment she seeks to clarify that he is indeed making the false statement that it is in the First Amendment.

Here's a quick take on what the First Amendment says -- and doesn't say:

Keeping government out of religion and religion out of government is a core principle of the First Amendment. The first 16 words say, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Keeping government out of religion is spelled out in the first 16 words, but what in those words keeps religion out of government and where are the words "separation of church and state" that Coons says can be found there?  

That means government can't limit our personal faith or favor one religion over others. [Yes].  It also means that creationism cannot be taught in America's public schools.   

Um, whaaaaaaat???  That is quite a leap!  Maybe that part can be found in the mythical version of the Constitution where the words "separation of church and state" appear...

The separation of church and state has been a cornerstone of American ideals for centuries. As early as 1640, Rhode Island founder and theologian Roger Williams cited the need for "a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world."

Perhaps a better indication of the cornerstone of American ideals comes from the Declaration of Independence.  This non-secular document signed by the Continental Congress acknowledges that our rights are given from God.  It also references "Nature's God," "a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence," and "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World."  Does this sound like the beginnings of a nation that would want to keep church and state separate?

James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, would later explain the need for this separation, saying, "religion and Govt. will both exist in greater purity,  the less they are mixed together."

Madison says church and state are respectively best when their joining is kept to a minimum.  That is not the same as saying that there must be a separation of church and state, nor is it saying that that is what was intended in the First Amendment. 

Fortunately, there are Congressional transcripts that can tell us what was discussed DURING the drafting of the Bill of Rights:

"Mr. Madison thought, if the word national was inserted before religion, it would satisfy the minds of honorable gentlemen.  He believed that the people feared one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combine together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform.  He thought if the word national was introduced, it would point the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent..."

Clearly Madison's concern was the establishment of a national religion on the whole country - kind of like how there's a Church of England - and NOT with abolishing religion from government altogether.

The words "separation of church and state" appear nowhere in the Constitution. That's true, [Thank you!] and O'Donnell's camp now says that's what she really meant.["NOW" says?  It was clear from the beginning that was what she meant!] The phrase stemmed from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. He cited the language of the First Amendment and said that it built "a wall of separation between Church and State." This was not just some poetic flourish. This was one of the nation's founders and author of the Declaration of Independence explaining exactly what the First Amendment means.

At least Paulson is careful here in saying that Jefferson was a founder and author of the Declaration - he was NOT an author of the Constitution.  In fact, he was in Europe while it was being drafted and his letter was written 10 years after the First Amendment was ratified.  While Jefferson is certainly an important forefather whose opinions are key to our understanding of the founding of our nation, he was not present and did not participate in the debates on the Bill of Rights and thus could not "explain[] exactly what the First Amendment means."

Later in the debate, O'Donnell challenged Coons to name the five freedoms of the First Amendment. He came up four freedoms short.

Welcome to the club. First Amendment Center surveys show that most Americans can name just one freedom in the First Amendment and only one in 25 can name all five — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the rights of petition and assembly.

"Welcome to the club"??!!  That's all he gets for not knowing a basic tenet of the Constitution?!  While O'Donnell gets a long lecture despite her being correct that "separation of church and state" is nowhere written in the Constitution and Bill of Rights?!

Obviously this article was not written to inform or correct the record on the First Amendment, but to provide political cover for Coons' errors and continue the incorrect narrative that O'Donnell didn't know her Constitution.  


srhoades said...

The sentence immediately following the (in)famous "wall of separation" phrase states, "Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties."

It is clear from that sentence that Jefferson was not saying that "religion should stay out of government", only that government should stay out of religion.

But I don't expect Ken Paulson to understand that or anything else written in plain language -- otherwise he would not have used the Roger Williams quote that he did. Gardens are always forged out of wildernesses and (unless you're a greenie) it's considered a good thing. It is never good when your garden is over run by the wilderness. If Mr. Paulson thinks otherwise, I'll move in next door to him and never cut my grass.

MPH said...

So when the 1st Amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion", which admittedly is not the exact same wording as "separation of church and state", you think that this doesn't preclude Congress from funding one particular religions creation story to the exclusion of others?

You think that Congress mandating a particular religion's creation story be taught in Congressionally funded schools is NOT "respecting an establishment of religion"? You're wrong.

I wonder if you'd feel the same if the creation story to be taught was the Hindu one, or the Shinto one, or the Norse one.

Finally, you make the common mistake of thinking that there are only 5 freedoms listed in the 1st amendment: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the rights of petition and assembly. You leave out the sixth one, the one most people miss, and it's the first one: Freedom FROM religion.

Congress is NOT allowed to force any religion onto the people. This includes indoctrination (aka brainwashing) in the congressionally funded schools of a particular religion's tenets, even if it might be your chosen religion. If you want your children to learn creationism, I suggest you do so without my money: put them in the parochial school of your choice, where you will be allowed to have your child taught any creation myth you choose.

But as long as you want me to help fund your kid's education, I want a say in what they are taught. And in this case, I've got the Constitution, the law, and the courts, on my side.