Christine O'Donnell's cocky ignorance of the First Amendment.

How you look at things.
Oct. 20 2010 7:59 AM

Church and Stupid

Christine O'Donnell's cocky ignorance of the First Amendment.

Christine O'Donnell. Click image to expand.
Christine O'Donnell

Does Christine O'Donnell understand that the First Amendment prohibits federal establishment of religion?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Yesterday she challenged her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, on this question during a debate. Media reports on the exchange depicted her as ignorant. In response, conservative writers and pundits—Rush Limbaugh, Ramesh Ponnuru, and bloggers at National Review, the American Spectator, First Things, Right Wing News, and other sites—have come to her defense. They claim O'Donnell was disputing not the Constitution but liberal interpretations of it. In Limbaugh's words:

There was a story that was written in such a way to make the reader believe that Christine O'Donnell did not know that the First Amendment prohibited the government from establishing a religion. … That's not what she was expressing incredulity over. She was incredulous that somebody was saying that the Constitution said there must be separation between church and state. Those words are not in the Constitution.

It's true that the phrase "separation of church and state" isn't in the Constitution. It's also true that this was O'Donnell's main point. But Limbaugh and her other defenders can't hide what she revealed along the way. O'Donnell did express incredulity that the First Amendment prohibits government establishment of religion. It's right there on the tape.

The key exchange begins just after the 17-minute mark. Here's my transcription:

Coons: The First Amendment establishes the separation, the fact that the federal government shall not establish any religion, and decisional law by the Supreme Court over many, many decades—

O'Donnell: The First Amendment does?

I've put O'Donnell's interjection exactly where she delivered it: well after Coons specified that under the First Amendment, "the federal government shall not establish any religion." Coons has the wording wrong: The amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," etc. But he has the gist right. And this—not the phrase "separation of church and state"—is what directly precedes O'Donnell's challenge.

Nor does O'Donnell's inflection match her defenders' interpretation of the exchange. To understand her meaning, you need the audio, not just the transcript. In expressing her disbelief, she clearly emphasizes the word First. She seems incredulous not just at Coons' position against government-established religion, but that he bases it on the First Amendment. It's the citation that surprises her.

A minute later, O'Donnell brings the discussion back to this question:

O'Donnell: Let me just clarify: You're telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?

Coons: Government shall make no establishment of religion.

O'Donnell: That's in the First Amendment.

Again, you need the audio, and in this case full-screen video, to get her meaning. As she says, "That's in the First Amendment," she stares at Coons with a look of contemptuous amusement. (You can see her expression more clearly in this video, about seven minutes in.) Then she grins knowingly at somebody in the audience. She thinks Coons has just embarrassed himself.

O'Donnell isn't a total ignoramus. On some particulars of the First Amendment, she seems better briefed than Coons. Thirty-two minutes into the debate, she catches Coons with a pop question:

O'Donnell: Can you name the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment?

Coons: I think the very first provision of the First Amendment is that the government shall make no establishment of religion. And before we get into a further debate about exactly which of us knows the Constitution better, how about we—

O'Donnell: No, I'm just asking: Can you name the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment?

Coons: —how about we get the panel asking our questions today.

Obviously, Coons wasn't prepared to answer the question. Presumably, O'Donnell was. (The five freedoms are religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.) My guess is that she had this question written down on the notes she brought to the debate, which you can see spread out before her in the video. But there's a difference between his ignorance and hers. He was asked to fill in a blank. Lacking confidence that he knew the correct answers, he refused to guess. (We don't know how many of the five freedoms he could have named; we just know that he doubted he could guess them all.) She, on the other hand, was repeatedly presented with a correct answer and repeatedly rejected it. She showed tremendous confidence that what was true was false.

At no point in the debate did O'Donnell offer any of the sophisticated church-state arguments her defenders now attribute to her. She didn't quote the establishment clause for the same reason that Coons didn't quote the five freedoms: because she couldn't. Not until after the debate—apparently at the direction of her campaign team—did she tell National Review, "What our constitution prevents is … government establishing a religion, but it also says that it won't prohibit free exercise thereof." She noted that Coons "forgot to quote" the part about prohibiting free exercise. But Coons did quote the part about government establishing religion. He quoted it twice. And each time, she responded with wry disbelief.

The disturbing thing about this episode isn't O'Donnell's ignorance of the First Amendment. As her damage-control interview makes clear, that ignorance has now been repaired. What's disturbing is the bemused confidence with which she mocked the truth. It's the same confidence with which she dismisses evolution, claims that America has gone socialist, and asserts that "American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains." Ignorance is temporary, but imperviousness is forever.

Latest Twitter Updates
    Follow William Saletan on Twitter.

    Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter. William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: