Wishful Constitutionalism

What Women Really Think
Oct. 19 2010 4:06 PM

Wishful Constitutionalism

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Lauren , I’ve watched the O’Donnell/Coons debate at Widener University Law School about five times now trying to decide if it’s true that O’Donnell really had no idea that the First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing religion . I don’t think it is. I think that what she revealed in the debate was something scarier than ignorance about what’s in the Constitution, though.

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If you watch the exchange , you can see she thought she’d caught out Chris Coons for stating that one of the indispensible principles in the Constitution is "the separation of church and state." That’s when O’Donnell replied, "Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?" and the audience went berserk. Coons then brought the subject up again after O’Donnell answered the next question, noting, "I think you’ve just heard from my opponent in her asking 'where is the separation of church and state’ show that she has a fundamental misunderstanding."

"The First Amendment does?" O’Donnell interrupted. "So you’re telling me the phrase separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?" O’Donnell’s campaign has now clarified that she was talking about the language of the First Amendment , and the fact that the phrase "separation of church and state" isn’t in it. I guess she thought that she was scoring one rhetorical point while he thought he was scoring another. Whether that’s reassuring to you or not depends on whether you are more afraid of a candidate who doesn’t know what’s in the First Amendment or a candidate who adheres to a fanciful, mostly fabricated history of it.

It’s clear from watching their discussion about teaching creationism in the public schools that O’Donnell is taking the Glenn Beck/David Barton stance that the Constitution was never meant to keep religion out of the public sphere and that there should never have been a wall erected between church and state in the first place. Barton has been hard at work years now promoting the fiction that the framers were in fact orthodox Christians who always wanted the United States to be a Christian nation and but for activist secular judges this would be a Christian country today. Michelle Goldberg has detailed Barton’s rapid rise as a Tea Party scholar. What worries me about this clip isn’t that O’Donnell doesn’t know what’s in the Constitution. What worries me is that the exchange reveals that the plain language of the document, and decades of court precedent, are less important to her than what she wishes the document said instead.

Photograph of a debating Chris Coons and Christine O'Donnell by Getty Images.

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