Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Peter Daou is right: Dems are getting "played" on freedom of religion

I'm not a witch, but I hate the First Amendment

Peter Daou has a good post on Christine "I'm not a witch" O'Donnell's supposed lack of understanding of the First Amendment, Democrats getting played: O’Donnell successfully shapes dialogue about First Amendment 10/19/2010. For the kind of reaction to which Daou is responding, see Alex Pareene, Video: Christine O'Donnell forgets her Constitution at debate Salon.

I'm going to try to be a good Lakoffian here and "frame" this in the democratic way, which is also the Democratic way, rather than put it in the negative by refuting O'Donnell rightwing talking point.

The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" - this is known as the Establishment Clause, meaning there should be no state church, i.e., keeping the Church out of the business of government - "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" - to keep the government out of the business of the Church.

The 14th Amendment extended this and other provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states, as well. I'm not making a legal point here about the nuances of some obscure case. This is the basic Constitutional framework of our government.


The Founders, in this case the first Congress which passed the Bill of Rights, understood the First Amendment to separate religion and government, Church and State. The defining background for them was the Wars of Religion in the 16th century, the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 and the English Civil Wars of (1642–1651). Sectarian religious considerations were major factors in those bloody conflicts, the 30 Years War being the bloodiest conflict in Europe prior to the First World War.

For perspective, 1791 (the year the first Congress convened) was 143 years after the end of the 30 Years War. The end of the American Civil War was 145 years ago, and our contemporary political discussions still include active discussion of that war, what it means, and the legal changes that emerged from it. It wasn't that they just thought picking out a state church was too much trouble. They understood separation of church and state as a positive good, for both government and religion. It was part of their understanding of democracy, as it is today in most democratic countries.

O'Donnell in what many progressive commentators took to be a gaffe was elaborating a favorite Christian theocratic talking point, dumb and annoying but popular. Daou gives an illustration from Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle, which is to point out that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the First Amendment. Ironically, the more someone knows about the law concerning freedom of religion, the more likely they are to stumble over that point if they aren't prepared for it. The First Amendment does separate church from state for the mutual benefit of both.

Daou quotes from an interview with Angle a couple of months back, in which she makes the theocratic talking point:

RALSTON: Oh, it doesn't? The Founding Fathers didn't believe in the separation of church and state?

ANGLE: Thomas Jefferson has been misquoted, like I've been misquoted, out of context. Thomas Jefferson was actually addressing a church and telling them through his address that there had been a wall of separation put up between the church and the state precisely to protect the church from being taken over by a state religion. That's what they meant by that. They didn't mean we couldn't bring our values to the political forum.
She's referring to a famous statement by Jefferson about having a wall separation church of state; the phrase "wall of separation" is often used in discussing this concept today. (See 'A Wall Of Eternal Separation' TPM 10/19/2010)

Here she makes a gotcha point that's typical of the dissembling manner of Christian Right candidates. No one that I've ever heard of, including Jefferson, argued that "we couldn't bring our values to the political forum." The Christian Right in more friendly context likes to talk about "putting God back into the public square."

But Democrats and supporters of freedom of religion do do argue that legislation must have a legitimate secular purpose. And it's perfectly legitimate to call out Republicans on exactly what they are their fellow Republicans mean when they talk about enacting religious values into our secular law.

Because, as we've seen for decades with the issue of teaching creationism in the public schools, the fundamentalist Christian Republicans do want to impose their specifically religious views through the power of the state. And they have gotten away for decades with campaigning to the Christian right on the basis of religion and then ducking questions about exactly what that means by saying such questions are illegitimate because they concern their very personal religious convictions.

The press has let them get away with, and there's no reason to think the press on its own will change. But Democrats have also let them get away with. And it's high time that candidates like Jack Conway in his Senate race in Kentucky against the unctuous and deceitful Rand Paul started calling them on it. Good for you, soon-to-be-Senator Conway!

And, if you are in any doubt about that line being Republican Party dogma and Constitutional scholarship, Limbaugh Defends O'Donnell: Separation Of Church And State Not In The Constitution TPMDC 10/19/2010.

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