Much has been made of Republican Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell of Delaware’s apparent surprise that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution could be construed as supporting the separation of church and state.
In a debate this week at Widener University Law School with her Democratic opponent Chris Coons, the audience gasped at O’Donnell’s apparent lack of knowledge about the First Amendment and its prohibition against Congress making laws respecting the establishment of religion.
“You’re telling me that’s [meaning the separation of church and state] in the first amendment?” O’Donnell said as Coons read it straight from the document.
After watching the video, I don’t think O’Donnell was surprised in the least by the contents of the First Amendment, but was instead sending a signal to her right-wing base. Her facial expression is a dead giveaway. She raises her eyebrows, widens her eyes, slowly nods her head, and turns her mouth down into a “hmmm” expression. It’s the same expression my partner gives me when I’ve said something completely stupid or ridiculous.
Instead of being mystified that perhaps the First Amendment would say something about religion, I believe O’Donnell was simply signaling to her base that she toes the well-worn right-wing line that while the First Amendment may guarantee freedom of religion, it does not create a wall of separation between church and state. That phrase, of course, is not in the Constitution, but was used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.
Her expression and the knowing nod showed that she thought Coons was the idiot for thinking that the language of the First Amendment automatically grants “separation of church and state.” The religious right has long propagandized that such a separation was never intended by the framers of the Constitution and has only been affirmed by “activist judges” throughout the centuries. Bryan Fischer at the American Family Association has even equated the separation of church and state as being “straight from the mind of Hitler”:
The objective of the Nazi regime was virtually identical to the agenda of today’s ACLU: Contain the voice of the church within the four walls of its buildings, turning them into nothing more than echo chambers, and punish any effort of church leaders to make their voices heard in the public square.
Far from being stupid about what the First Amendment does or does not say about religion and the separation of church and state, O’Donnell was willing to look foolish to those arugula-eating, highfalutin’ law school elites while smartly telling her right-wing base just where she stood. She blew the dog whistle and I’m sure they heard her loud and clear.