(Don’s note: As dated as the opening discussion points may be, the need to write this essay never ebbed in the same manner it’s timeliness did with each passing day since the linked article was published by Lima News Opinion Page Editor Ron Lederman. As I kept the main arguments tucked-away in the back of my mind, it dawned on me this piece would be the best possible segue composition for the one which will follow. While my authorship of the blog below may be long overdue, its central points have been of vital importance to our Republic for 220 years and will continue to be so for many generations to come. Also, while it may be tempting at some point to write this off as a strangely tardy defense of the former candidate mentioned as well, her mention serves merely as necessary background for why I felt it was so necessary to at some point tackle the central theme.)
I stopped getting excited over candidates for elected office based on their party affiliation several years ago.
While I have supplanted that outlook with a small-government, third-party bias, my spurning of the failed two-party political system has led me to (finally/belatedly) assess what all candidates and pundits say with a more critical – and especially skeptical – outlook.
Sometimes, even a less confidence-inspiring (or so many talking heads would have us believe) individual can arrive at the truth – and in plain enough terms to draw equal amounts of public scorn and adulation.
Such was the case with Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell in Delaware last year. During the October 19 debate with Chris Coons (the eventual winner of that State’s Senate seat) at Widener University’s law school she asked her opponent point blank, “Where in the Constitution is the ‘separation of church and state?’”
According to the Associated Press, O’Donnell’s retorts to Coons – during a discussion centering on whether or not public schools ought to include Creationism in their curricula – drew a derisive response from an audience which consisted principally of law students and professors. Critics would insist her remarks in the overall exchange during that segment of their debate demonstrated O’Donnell lacks a comprehension of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and what its original meaning and intent have always been.
Locally, Lima News Opinion Page Editor Ron Lederman would expand further on that observation (see, in particular, his post in the bottom of the comments section) by insisting that because she presented her perspective on this highly contentious topic while debating a lawyer and in front of a crowd comprised mainly of law students she is “an idiot.”
There are a couple of points that actually show favorably toward O’Donnell on this situation. The fact she would hold to the obvious on the First Amendment that the phrase “separation of church and state” is stated nowhere in it, and do so in the company present at that time, demonstrated a degree of courage of conviction so nauseatingly lacking among politicians today. It is easy to argue one’s convictions and principles while in the presence of a like-minded crowd. It is a far more daunting undertaking to do so when surrounded by people who are inclined to disagree with you vehemently.
Now had O’Donnell been surprised her stance on the Establishment Clause would be harshly-received, one would have a sound case that she lacks solid reasoning skills.
Otherwise, to say the least, Lederman’s criticism of O’Donnell on this specific point is nonsensical.
What is a legitimate criticism of her is how she defended her qualifications to be the next senator from Delaware instead of Coons, since she had not held any previous legislative seat or could boast of any other governmental experience. This was a gaff everyone who spent time tearing-her-down completely missed.
Bear in mind: she championed herself as embodying all that the Tea Party represented based on the notion she was not a Washington Insider trying merely to advance her political aspirations.
O’Donnell eventually pointed to her years of experience working for or establishing several right-wing think tanks and other non-profits (Concerned Women for America, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth [founder], and Catholic Advocacy Network [founder]), authorship of multiple articles for conservative and Christian publications, as well as her two years working in the communications office of the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C.
In short O’Donnell, who promoted herself on the campaign trail as the non-Washington insider, heralded her qualifications to serve in the Senate based on her years spent as a Washington insider.
All in all, her perceived or real shortcomings aside, O’Donnell is right regarding the so-called intent of “separation of church and state” in the First Amendment. It’s not even a matter of semantics, as Lederman insists in his own observation.
What those with a Progressive outlook on the dynamics of religion and government have been pushing onto America over the last 64 years hinges on language used in the opinions of the Supreme Court justices in the Everson vs. Board of Education case.
Opinions written both by the majority and dissenting opinions in that case made reference to the “wall of separation between Church and State.”
What the Supreme Court did in 1947 – and what militant anti-religionists have continued to do to advance their agenda throughout the decades since – was thoroughly torture the words of Thomas Jefferson and completely disregard American and Western history.
On New Year’s Day, 1802, in the first year of his first term as President, Jefferson penned a letter in reply to one he received from leaders of the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut.
The Baptists represented a small minority among Christians in the young nation, particularly in the Nutmeg State – which at the time had the Congregational Church as its established state religion. At one time or another during the United States’ founding years, most states had (although their respective legislation had been adopted during their years as British colonies) state churches. Jefferson himself had signed into law while governor of his home state the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786, disestablishing the Church of England as the state church.
In their letter to Jefferson, the Danbury Baptists expressed their concerns that the state laws which declared a statewide church would result in their unalienable right to worship as they believed being reduced to privileges allotted by the legislature.
Within his response, Jefferson wrote the following passage which constituted the bulk of the second paragraph (of three) of the brief letter: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & 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 & State.”
The other historical point which cannot be understated is the fact when the Bill of Rights was being drafted, fresh in the minds of much of America were the lessons learned from the histories of most of the nations of Europe, where religious tyranny at the hands of the monarchs and their nobility had raged for centuries.
Many of those who had set sail for the New World over the course of roughly 200 years preceding the ratification of the Bill of Rights had done so to escape oppression or outright persecution for their religious beliefs. The most famous among these were the Puritans who are more commonly known as the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
While irony abounds in the fact the colonies would one-by-one establish state churches, it remains indisputable that America’s chief attraction throughout the years has been its promise of religious freedom.
The denial of religious freedom was most prevalent in Great Britain following the reigns of King Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Elizabeth I, where Catholic churches had been seized and re-established as Anglican churches – better known then as the Church of England. As time wore on, even other Protestant faiths came under assault as the perspective there evolved that failure to pay proper reverence to the King’s church was akin to disloyalty to the crown if not treason.
Understanding the people’s comprehension at that time of (what was then recent) European history of sectarian religious intolerance fills-in the crucial context of what the Founders truly meant in the opening clause of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Inspired heavily by their revulsion toward the actions of the English monarchy against competing faiths, the Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause to protect the Church from the State, not the State from the Church.
Their true original intent was to prevent what was done to the churches in Great Britain from happening here in the United States.
This is the vital truth so woefully forgotten by today’s general public and extensively disregarded by Progressives for over a century.
Both the misinterpretation of Jefferson’s words and the blatant brush-aside of historical facts by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and his colleagues have fueled the misconceptions that hang like a specter over one of the best-written defenses of civil liberties in our history.
Remember, the First Amendment is very specific in its language that “Congress shall make no law” when it comes to matters of religion or faith. The meaning presented in that clause was written to be much narrower than what is being applied in modern times.
Based on that precise wording, we understand this line item in the Bill of Rights was meant to ensure the federal government never passed laws or adopted policies which would or could deny any citizen the right to practice his or her religious beliefs – either through an explicit prohibition or slightly more subtly through the establishment of a State Church.
(On a related side note, part of the motivation for the First Amendment was to prevent the infamous Salem Witch Hunts from ever taking place again.)
The contemporary re-interpretation of the Establishment Clause has served as justification for the broad-sweeping prohibition of anything which could serve as even the remotest symbol of religious acknowledgment in any arena of the public sector.
Let’s examine this as it relates to the most common application of the Establishment Clause: local public entities.
If “Congress shall make no law” is the core language at the heart of the “wall of separation,” logically this means when a city hall puts a Nativity scene on display there is no constitutional prohibition against it – this is not Congress making a law favoring one religion or cracking-down on another.
When a crowd at a get-together on school grounds such as a graduation or sporting event wishes to engage in an invocation, this is not Congress making a law.
When a county courthouse has the Ten Commandments on display, this is not Congress making a law.
When a memorial for fallen soldiers or victims of a tragedy is erected on public land that bears the shape of a Cross, this is not Congress making a law.
What staunch religion opponents and those who have handled much of their litigation for them (i.e. the American Civil Liberties Union) have been doing since Everson vs. Board of Education is taking the examples mentioned above out of the realm of political concerns (where they rightfully belong) and falsely turned them into legal concerns.
Whenever an exhibit of any kind that holds any religious meaning is displayed on municipal or county property, it is a matter for the local residents of that jurisdiction who oppose it to settle through either a redress of grievance with the local elected body or the political process by getting individuals who agree with them on such an item elected to the respective council or commission.
Conversely, if a state or local government chooses to enact prohibitions on activities such as those, that rightfully should be their domain. Then, it is up to us as residents of that state, county, municipality, or township to petition for a redress of such a law, fight to elect those who would seek a repeal, or cast the ultimate vote by moving as we are free to do.
Unfortunately, the zeal with which a multitude of special interest organizations have attacked freedom of religion in America has outpaced the determination of those who would strive to defend it. Instead of pursuing legislation – which could be publicly debated and scrutinized – for their ends, they have achieved them through the use of our courts – bolstered by an ill-conceived legal opinion published by a Supreme Court packed with Progressive President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s appointees.
Jefferson in his incomparable wisdom said it best, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
As the decades have worn-on, we have seen this truth trampled-upon with startling vigor.