Decoding Christine O'Donnell

The Kingdom of the Constitution
What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Sept. 22 2010 4:27 PM

Decoding Christine O'Donnell

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Emily, I have been fascinated by Christine O'Donnell's constitutional worldview since her debate with her opponent Chris Coons last week. O'Donnell explained that "when I go to Washington, D.C., the litmus test by which I cast my vote for every piece of legislation that comes across my desk will be whether or not it is constitutional." How weird is that, I thought. Isn't it a court's job to determine whether or not something is, in fact, constitutional? And isn't that sort of provided for in, well, the Constitution? In 2003, O'Donnell said of the Supreme Court that "it's kind of like we have the nine people sitting there in Washington who have a constitutional monarchy and that is an abuse of the system." So I do wonder a little whether she's claiming that her view of what's constitutional trumps theirs. Not a lot of space for checks and balances in that reading.

I later learned that O'Donnell may have been referring to a new GOP proposal that would require every piece of legislation to include language citing its constitutional authority, as is already required in all committee reports, anyhow. The message that the Obama administration is repeatedly pushing unconstitutional legislation is clearly important to O'Donnell—and important more broadly, too—and so, like you, I've been trying to understand what she's trying to say.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

As you note, her speech last week at the Values Voter Summit in Washington clarified a lot. Describing the "dark days" of the early Obama administration, as contrasted to the current age of rejuvenation when "patriotic Americans stumbled upon the Constitution," there was a strong sense of some kind of conversion. I was baffled by all that language you quoted, Emily, about "constitutional repentance" and the references to "scriptures" and "covenants." It's as though the Constitution itself were to be found in the last moments of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I think you are right that it's of a piece with the larger trend toward conflating, and deliberately confusing, constitutional and biblical texts.

I'm thinking here of Sarah Palin's suggestion last spring that the text of the Constitution is based on "Judeo-Christian" beliefs, that our "unalienable rights don't come from man, they come from God." And that "our founders and founding documents created laws based on the bible and the Ten Commandments." Palin and O'Donnell seem to be braiding together the Tea Party's devotion to rigid, narrow constitutional interpretation, with a growing religious movement to, as Stephanie Mencimer describes it here, re-emphasize "God's role in the shaping of America." Under this view, as Mencimer writes, "Not only were the founders seeking to create a Christian nation … but the Constitution's principles stem from ideas handed down to Moses himself—making it de facto a divine work passed on to the founders by a divine people."

We heard a lot of this same talk last summer at Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings. It came to a surreal head when Sen. Chuck Grassley asked Kagan directly whether "the Second Amendment codif[ied] a pre-existing right or was it a right created by the Constitution?"—a dog whistle, I gather—to the  "Christian Reconstructionist" argument that the right to bear arms comes from God. I guess by way of Moses and Joshua.

When Palin and O'Donnell mix and match their zeal for the Bible as immutable and perfect and their zeal for the Constitution as equally immutable and perfect, I suppose it has the practical effect of healing the schism between "values" conservatives and libertarian Tea Partiers. So, points for that. But it also has the effect of confusing the heck out of those of us who don't see a lot of evidence in the Constitution itself that it was intended to either enshrine biblical dogma or be treated with biblical reverence. But as you noted at the start, we are not her intended audience.

This brings me to your question about O'Donnell's odd explanation for falling behind on her mortgage payments in 2008. She says she was working pro bono as a media consultant for a woman in a permanent vegetative state whose mother wanted to unplug her feeding tube. I assume she's referring to her advocacy work to keep alive Lauren Richardson—a 23-year-old Delaware woman whose parents disagreed about unplugging her feeding tube. It's not quite clear to me what O'Donnell was doing on that campaign—there are some archived radio interviews but not much else. I did find a blog post from her 2008 Senate bid describing O'Donnell's work on the feeding-tube case and then explaining that she always urged voters: "When you go into the voting booth, ask God which candidate will further the kingdom of God." I guess that message has expanded in recent months to include the kingdom of the Constitution as well?

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