“Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” asked Christine O’Donnell, Republican candidate for senator in Delaware, during a debate with her Democratic opponent on October 19, 2010 at the Widener University Law School. The New York Times and other media organizations reported that the question drew gasps and laughter from the audience composed of many professors and law students. Across the nation liberal pundits on blogs, television, and in print mocked the Tea Party-backed O’Donnell for her apparent stupidity.
O’Donnell did eventually fail in her Senate bid, losing by a wide margin. There were weaknesses. One infamous campaign decision was her television advertisement declaring she was not a witch, a tactic to counteract an earlier statement that she made about flirting with witchcraft as a teenager. But was her understanding of the separation of church and state wrong?
Taking their cue from a number of key Supreme Court rulings, liberals find it convenient to argue against the mixing of religion and politics by citing the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Justice Harry Blackman’s 1988 majority opinion in the Supreme Court that “the Constitution mandates that the government remain secular, rather than affiliate itself with religious beliefs or institutions” is a case in point.
However, conservatives such as Thomas Sowell take a much different interpretation of “an establishment of religion”; for them, the First Amendment merely forbids the establishment of a national religion. Truth be told, the Constitution does not address the separation of church and state at all. The reference to the separation of church and state came from a private letter written by Thomas Jefferson in the early 19th century.
Those who wrote the First Amendment in the late 1700s saw how the Church of England, as the official church of the state, had special privileges over all other religious groups and denominations. As the “established” church, it received government money including money generated from taxes collected from citizens inside and outside the Church of England. The first clause of the First Amendment corrected this problem. It prevented Congress from creating any one official church with greater powers over other religious denominations.
Christian conservatives generally hold that the government is free to prefer religion generally to non-religion. As long as there is no state church, politicians can draw on their religious beliefs (as secularists draw on their beliefs) to formulate intelligent policies. For a nation to stand for something good and noble, does it not make sense to champion wise and invaluable ideals from Judeo-Christian teachings? If done so in a reasonable manner respectable of a pluralistic America, there are countless benefits.
For further discussion of liberal thinking, I recommend the modern classic: Thomas Sowell, Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy (1995).
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