walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Separation of Church and State

There is a meme operating in a right wing echo chamber that splattered over a larger population in a recent debate in the Delaware Senate race. The meme goes something like this: the "separation of church and state" isn't in the Constitution.

Ms. O'Donnell thought she was springing a trap for Mr. Coons by asking him where in the Constitution the separation of church and state is to be found. Mr. Coons responded with a nuanced description of the Establishment Clause, the Free Exercise Clause (both in the First Amendment) and a necessarily brief summary of how those have been dealt with in case law in the centuries since the Constitution was ratified. Rachel Maddow, on Wednesday's show, pointed out that Ms. O'Donnell's body language indicated she thought she'd won that point. Today, it has become clear that Ms. Maddow's interpretation of Ms. O'Donnell's body language was correct.


""It's really funny the way that the media reports things," she said. "After that debate my team and I we were literally high fiving each other thinking that we had exposed he doesn't know the First Amendment, and then when we read the reports that said the opposite we were all like 'What?'""

A person who does not exist within that particular right wing echo chamber might wonder what she could possibly be talking about? The answer seems to come in several parts. First, there is a "fundamentalist" reading of the Constitution: the _exact phrase_ "separation of church and state" does not occur in the Constitution. Second, "Congress shall make no law", means perhaps states could establish a church (viz. collect taxes for the church) or even abridge the free exercise thereof. There are also some wackier components to the debate, including the idea that the concept of separating church and state originated with the Nazis and similar.

I was raised a Jehovah's Witness. I was baptized when I was 15 years old, and I did not quit being a Jehovah's Witness until I was 25. I knew what I was doing when I was doing it, and for a good chunk of that time, I wanted to be like my heroes, a test case for first amendment protection of freedom of religion. I know _exactly_ what that's all about. The idea that someone wants to come along and say that, why yes! A town, or a county, or a state _can_ say you are not allowed to be a member of a particular religion, or go door to door, or refuse blood transfusions, or whatever, horrifies me to this day (and I say this as someone who really wishes we could rid the world of Jehovah's Witnesses and other groups as well -- just not through state power. I'm sort of hoping peer pressure will do the trick, or possibly encouraging people to be a little more reality based. See? I'm still delusional, just in a different way.).

However, just because _I'm_ horrified does not in any way suggest that other people would agree with me. I know I'm representative -- of a very tiny minority.

Here, then, is my argument that a Thomas-style argument will never get any real traction in the United States. This is what happens when a state (or territory, at any rate) successfully establishes a church, and then the federal government decides to do something to change that:


The establishment of the religion was not allowed to last. And federal efforts to change the religion were not overwhelmingly successful -- and when they were successful, it was through negotiation, not coercive force. It's always entertaining to wander the wikipedia links to learn about related things, like the Smoot Hearings, and try to make sense of how the Republican/Democratic divide operated Back In the Day.

We seem to have a number of odd candidates in this midterm arguing things that are well-received in tiny circles (libertarian arguments by Rand Paul, for example, that the Civil Rights Act should not have applied to private businesses), and really, really far from the main streams of public discourse. When these ideas splatter across larger groups, reactions are a little unpredictable, because the ideas themselves are basically incomprehensible outside the tiny group which holds them passionately. They are not practical ideas: if we could wave a wand and make the entire body politic understand them completely and instantly, the result would be shockingly devastating for the people who hold them.

As luck would have it, a veil of confusion prevents people like Mr. Paul and Ms. O'Donnell from receiving the full response their ideas would, in that world of complete comprehension, earn them. As a person who has held wildly unlikely ideas dear for most of my life, I think I'm mostly grateful, because I've benefited from that confusion as well. As a citizen, however, I am a little worried.
Tags: politics, religion
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