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Church-state separation anxiety

Posted: October 29, 2010 3:46 p.m.
Updated: November 1, 2010 5:00 a.m.

Some people love the Constitution so much that they just can't wait to change it.

That's the ironic contradiction I am often hearing from the reenergized political right in this midterm election season. I've heard conservatives from the tea party right, the Christian right and the free-market Ron Paul libertarian right talk endlessly about how "We've got to get back to the Constitution" and "take our country back."

Back to what? That depends on who you ask. But there's a good chance that it would require some drastic new interpretations of the Constitution to get what they want. It might even require new amendments.

Take, for example, that hearty perennial of an issue, freedom of religion.

In a recent debate, Christine O'Donnell, Delaware's Republican candidate for Vice President Joe Biden's old Senate seat, barely found agreement with her Democratic opponent, Christopher Coons, over what the First Amendment says, let alone what it means.

At one point, O'Donnell demanded to know where in the Constitution one can find the "separation of church and state," a question that audibly amused the debate's law school audience.

Coons, a graduate of Yale's law and divinity schools, responded that she should try the First Amendment, which bars the government from making laws respecting the establishment of religion.

O'Donnell replied, "You're telling me that's in the First Amendment?" as if this came to her as news. The audience of law students audibly gasped, laughed and groaned.

But, guess what? Sometimes in politics you can sound wrong even when you're right, especially if you're the year's only candidate to famously begin your first television ad with "I am not a witch."

It turns out, if you want to get technical in a way that makes late-night college dormitory arguments go on forever, O'Donnell was correct. In fact, it is a well-worn talking point on the religious right, in particular, to point out that the exact phrase "separation of church and state" is not in the Constitution.

That famous phrase traces back not to the Constitution but to a letter from Thomas Jefferson to church leaders, declaring a "wall between church and state." The metaphor has been quoted again and again over the centuries by lawyers, judges and Supreme Court justices and many of the rest of us, usually in agreement with it.

But not always. Lawyers, judges and justices make their living through argument, and this issue is no exception.

Among other Republican Senate candidates, we have another tea party favorite, Ken Buck of Colorado, who raised a bit of a ruckus last year by saying he "strongly" disagrees "with the concept of separation of church and state" and sees no need for it when "we have a Constitution that is very strong in the sense that we are not going to have a religion that's sanctioned by the government."

Sharron Angle, Nevada's Republican Senate candidate, later agreed saying "Thomas Jefferson has been misquoted, like I've been misquoted, out of context." The nation's founders "didn't mean we couldn't bring our values to the political forum," Angle said.

Yet the First Amendment could hardly be clearer in its aim to keep churches and government separate. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," it says. Even conservatives like O'Donnell, Buck and Angle agree that the Constitution bars the establishment of a state religion. The eternal dispute rages on over how far government should just keep its hands out of religion and vice versa.

Can't we all get along? Separation of church and state has been argued endlessly precisely because no one can say for sure what the founders intended, no matter how much today's experts with their widely varying amounts of expertise think they know.

It is left for us, the living, to figure out how to reconcile our national conflicts over faith, religious freedoms and religious diversity. Campaign time may be the worst time for us to try to find points of agreement. But it does offer us a chance to see how vastly different our interpretations can be, even when we read the same words.

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