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What Coons and O’Donnell Actually Said About The Separation Of Church And State

In a recent debate between Christine O’Donnell and Chris Coons, both running for a seat in the U.S. Senate from Delaware, O’Donnell began to discuss the issue of the teaching of Intelligent Design Theology and other forms of Creationism in public schools. O’Donnell argued that it’s a violation of freedom of religion if public schools are not allowed to force students to learn the Christian doctrines of Creationism. In fact, O’Donnell went even further, and suggested that the question ought to be whether evolution ought to have as much time in public school science class lectures as Christian theology.

It was during this discussion that Coons talked about the idea of the “separation of church and state”. O’Donnell quickly attacked Coons for doing so. The following is a transcript of the portion of the debate that follows. (in this transcript, “…” represents either an interuption or a section of the discussion that didn’t have to do with the separation of church and state.)

“Christine O’Donnell: Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?

…[O'Donnell and Coons discuss efforts by Tea Party activists to repeal multiple amendments to the Constitution.]…

Chris 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?

Chris Coons:… clarifies and enshrines that there is a separation of church and state that our courts and our laws must respect…

O’Donnell: So you’re telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?

Chris Coons:… if there are settled pieces of constitutional law, like the separation of church and state… that we live with and have lived under for decades, then in my view, it is important to know that you have, on my side, a candidate who believes in and supports those things, and on the other side, a candidate who…

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

Chris Coons:… government shall make no establishment of religion.

O’Donnell: That’s in the First Amendment?”

Supporters of Christine O’Donnell have attempted to reinterpret their candidate’s ignorance of the concept of separation of church and state by saying that O’Donnell was asking Coons if he thought that the phrase “separation of church and state” was in the First Amendment. O’Donnell’s own words show, however, that she was asking about the concept, not the phrase. She asked about “the separation of church and state”, which is a concept. She didn’t ask about “the words ‘separation of church and state’” or “the phrase ‘separation of church and state’”.

Chris Coons was also quite clear in that he was talking about the concept of separation of church and state, not any particular phrasing. O’Donnell seemed caught off guard by the actual content of the First Amendment, and could only ask, in an attempted posture of a rhetorical question, whether the concept of the separation of church and state is in the Constitution. Of course, Coons had already answered that question. Yes, the concept of the separation of church and state is in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

It’s true, however, that the explanation Coons gave of the separation of church and state is only partially correct. The fact is that the concept of the separation of church and state is represented not just in the First Amendment, but also in the main body of the Constitution, which explicitly forbids any religious test for public office. The separation of church and state is also strongly implied by the lack of any Christian moral codes in the Constitution, and the lack of any reference to Christians’ two main sources of law and righteousness: The Bible and the Christian god. The only time that the Constitution mentions religion is to state that government should not be involved in it.

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