O’Donnell’s church-state question provides teachable moment
Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Yahoo News.
Sometimes political debates generate light as well as heat.
Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell's question “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” in an exchange yesterday over teaching creationism in public schools tells us something about her but also reminds us of how often America's bedrock principles on government and religion are misunderstood.
Democratic candidate Chris Coons was quick to tell O'Donnell that religion and government are kept separate by the First Amendment.
“You're telling me that's in the First Amendment?” she responded.
Indeed it is. Here's a quick take on what the First Amendment says — and doesn't say:
Keeping government out of religion and religion out of government is a core principle of the First Amendment. The first 16 words say, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That means government can't limit our personal faith or favor one religion over others. That's also why courts continue to hold that creationism can't be taught in America's public schools.
The separation of church and state has been a cornerstone of American ideals for centuries. As early as 1640, Rhode Island founder and theologian Roger Williams cited the need for “a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, would later explain the need for this separation, saying, “religion and Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
The words “separation of church and state” appear nowhere in the Constitution. That's true, and O'Donnell's camp now says that's what she really meant. The phrase stemmed from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. He cited the language of the First Amendment and said that it built “a wall of separation between Church and State.” This was not just some poetic flourish. This was one of the nation's founders and author of the Declaration of Independence explaining exactly what the First Amendment means.
The separation of church and state means that teachers in public schools can't teach their faith to their students. Public schools are government bodies and teachers are their employees, so the restrictions of the First Amendment apply. But teachers can teach about religion. Faith and history are deeply intertwined, and students should understand the diversity of beliefs in the world today.
Later in the debate, O'Donnell challenged Coons to name the five freedoms of the First Amendment. He came up four freedoms short.
Welcome to the club. First Amendment Center surveys show that most Americans can name just one freedom in the First Amendment and only one in 25 can name all five — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the rights of petition and assembly.