Now this is my type of debate. An alleged “bearded Marxist” debating an alleged “former witch” about the 17th amendment. You can imagine me wolfing down popcorn in feverish excitement while watching the debate of Delaware Republican Senate Candidate Christine O’Donnell and Democratic opponent Chris Coons.
O’Donnell was ridiculed for her apparent lack of knowledge of the Constitution last night. Now, hold on to your chair, I am about to defend . . . partially.
The first exchange to produce laughs was when she asked Coons “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?”
That particular question does not necessary show a lack of understanding of the Constitution. Many conservative activists have argued that the Constitution was never intended to create a “wall of separation” between Church and State. Indeed, the language of a “wall of separation” is not in the Constitution. It came from Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter to the committee of the Danbury Baptist Association that reads:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. 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.
O’Donnell may have been thinking of the “wall” debate in asking Coons, “The First Amendment does? . . . Let me just clarify: You’re telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?”
Coons correctly responds with a reference to the establishment clause: “Government shall make no establishment of religion.”
O’Donnell then asks “That’s in the First Amendment…?” Yup.
Coons also correct to again ask O’Donnell about her views on evolution after she appeared to question the separation of church and state. If there is no such separation in her view, it magnifies the importance of her purported view that evolutionary theories are invalid. I have previously written a column about the right of the media to press candidates on their faith when they run in part on faith-based politics.
O’Donnell clearly had trouble on the other amendments. She was asked if she would repeal the 14th, 16th, or 17th Amendments if elected.
“The 17th Amendment I would not repeal” but then asked a person in the audience to explain what the 14th and 16th amendments were, adding “I’m sorry, I didn’t bring my Constitution with me.” I can certainly understand not recalling that the 16th amendment deals with the apportionment of taxes — not exactly a hot button amendment for most people. I can even understand gapping on the 17th on the direct election of Senators. But the 14th is a . . . well . . . a biggy after the whole Civil War thing.
The gap on the 14th was particularly embarrassing after O’Donnell accused Coons of constitutional ignorance by remarking “perhaps they didn’t teach you Constitutional law at Yale Divinity School.”
Now, I want to emphasize that O’Donnell is not expressing hostility to Yale Divinity School because she is a witch. She denies she is a witch. I am still a bit unsure why going to Yale Divinity School is a put down. I would think you would want a suspected bearded Marxist to go to divinity school, particularly after you just criticized him for attacking churches in the same debate. One thing is clear. The Delaware election should never end. For constitutional scholars, this is the best reality show on TV.