I find myself again needing to wash my mouth out with soap, having engaged in another round of WTF with no expletives deleted. When I was a child my mother temporarily banned me from watching Lassie. I would cry so hard every time Timmy got lost, fell down an abandoned mine shaft, or was otherwise in peril (pretty much a weekly occurrence) that my mother was concerned about my emotional well being. I'm thinking that maybe I should ban myself from watching or reading any news; my vocabulary is in danger of becoming that of an old sailor.
My latest round of profanity was in response to Tuesday's debate between Christine O'Donnell (R) and Chris Coons (D), both candidates for Delaware's U.S. Senate seat. Although nominally a Republican, O'Donnell has aligned herself with the Tea Party platform. During the debate, held at Widener University Law School, the subject of religion and the law arose. Coons asserted that the separation of church and state provisions of the Constitution prohibits teaching Creationism in public schools (O'Donnell prefers the term Intelligent Design). O'Donnell countered with, "Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?"
The audience, consisting mostly of law students gasped in horror but before you join them, take a gander at O'Donnell's follow-up observation to Coons assertion that the First Amendment establishes a separation of church and state, "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?" (emphasis added)
Technically, O'Donnell is correct. The text of the first amendment does not include the phrase "separation of church and state." The phrase is not found in the U.S. Constitution at all. 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."
O'Donnell is a nut job but already the conservative media has put a different spin on her remarks, declaring that O'Donnell was pointing out the lack of any specific phrase in the Constitution proclaiming that there is to be a separation of church and state. I doubt that O'Donnell was really parsing out the language of the Constitution but was instead clueless as to the consistent interpretation of the 1st amendment. Technically, the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear at all in the Constitution. The concept of separation of church and state is derived from the Establishment Clause of the 1st amendment. I wish that Coons had countered with that observation rather than sparring with O'Donnell as to whether the First Amendment literally contained the words separation of church and state; it doesn't.
I'm not just nitpicking. I've been thinking about how the far right has commandeered this election year and determined the parameters of the issues up for debate. I think that we have to reframe the argument. We can't afford to be sloppy with language.
O'Donnell didn't lose any votes because of her gaffe. If Coons had acknowledged that the precise phrase is not in the Constitution but that the language that is there was interpreted in the writings of no less than Thomas Jefferson to mean that there is a wall of separation between government and religion, then he would have deflated O'Donnell's argument and her ego. Many historians and students of the law trace the phrase "separation of church and state" to a letter written in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson in which he observed that the First Amendment built "a wall of separation between Church and State." There is also a couple of hundred years of jurisprudence that has consistenly interpreted the language of the First Amendment regarding religion, aka the Establishment Clause, as calling for the government to refrain from being in the business of promoting or censoring religious belief or lack thereof. In spite of O'Donnell's protestations to the contrary, separation of church and state has long been established as a valid Constutional interpretation solidly grounded in the First Amendment.
Of course the audience of law students scoffed because they understood the jurisprudence interpreting and applying the 1st amendment, but has the average American even read the Constitution outside of a cursory reading in some middle or high school civics class, let alone studied it? Even if they have read the Constitution, it's likely that they will agree with O'Donnell that there is no mention of separation of church and state in the Constitution. To understand the meaning of the U.S. Constitution takes more than simply reading the words.
Die hard Tea Party members are not likely to be persuaded to change their beliefs no matter how succinct and valid the argument. However, there are a lot of people who are angry with the status quo and bewildered by all the voices claiming to offer solutions. They need clear, straightforward information that they can use to make jugments as to which voices speak with truth and honesty. O'Donnell speaks as if she's their friend and there are a lot of disenchanted people who are anxious to believe that she has their best interests at heart.
The left needs to take a lesson from Toto and pull back the curtain to reveal that O'Donnell is just a bad magic act, hiding behind a curtain, pretending that she's the Wizard of the Right. To do that we have to stop merely shaking our heads in laughter and declaring O'Donnell and her political cohorts to be appropriate objects of ridicule. We need to offer people another reality by exposing that the Tea Party rhetoric is filled with sound and fury but signifies absolutely nothing.