Hooray, it’s debate time! And look — they’re entering my wheelhouse! The establishment clause of the 1st amendment!!! DOES ANYONE WANT TO READ MY FORTY PAGE SENIOR THESIS ON EXACTLY THIS SUBJECT?????
Coons said private and parochial schools are free to teach creationism but that “religious doctrine doesn’t belong in our public schools.”
“Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” O’Donnell asked him.
When Coons responded that the First Amendment bars Congress from making laws respecting the establishment of religion, O’Donnell asked: “You’re telling me that’s in the First Amendment?”
Her comments, in a debate aired on radio station WDEL, generated a buzz in the audience.
“You actually audibly heard the crowd gasp,” Widener University political scientist Wesley Leckrone said after the debate, adding that it raised questions about O’Donnell’s grasp of the Constitution.
Erin Daly, a Widener professor who specializes in constitutional law, said that while there are questions about what counts as government promotion of religion, there is little debate over whether the First Amendment prohibits the federal government from making laws establishing religion.
Okay, obviously this is hilarious and depressing, of course, because there are few things less obvious in the United States than the fact that the federal government is simply not, in theory, allowed to “establish a religion”. You know where I got that? Um, from this line in the Bill of Rights :
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Now look, I’m sure every two-bit hippy blogger worth his numeric keypad is going to be writing about this, probably all upset (and in many ways, rightfully so). But I’m actually only bringing this up because — of course — this is an object of discussion that floats in pretty tight orbit around the true center of the universe… which would be me. I mean, duh, man.
Anyways, I literally spent an entire semester at my pretentious liberal arts university listening to a smart old man from Richmond, VA (and actually reading the books he assigned us) explain to me the nuances of the first sixteen words of this amendment. Sixteen words! Do you know how much work has gone into trying to figure out what those sixteen words mean, and how they apply to every stupid religious argument that comes up? Every nativity scene, every Flying Spaghetti Monster, every immunization waiver, every creationism debate? SOOOO MUCH. By academic standards, I barely dipped my toe in the pool, and I can tell you, there was definitely a point sometime in December of 2003 when I honestly thought I had looked at this thing from every conceivable angle. My thesis doesn’t even get into the Free Exercise Clause. I couldn’t even get past the first ten words!!!
Now, I am not an academic. I have a bachelor’s degree, and not a particularly prestigious one. But dammit, I paid a fair amount of attention simply due to the lack of an accessible punk rock scene or anything better to do, and I know me some 1st amendment. I don’t expect other people to, if they aren’t interested (although, in fairness, it’s kind of interesting). Heck, I don’t even think you need to really know it if you run for office in many cases; it’s just one part of a very high level document, and the Courts will just shoot down anything that doesn’t follow it. That’s why they’re there, you know.
But if you’re going to roll in here and lecture some poor, nerdy bureaucrat who follows this stuff about sticking to the Constitution, and then you basically crap the bed when prompted for even a general, contextual understanding of the basic principles — the ones that most directly appeal to the argument you’re making, at that — that went into its construction, well, good golly. You’ve crossed the line. You are now just farting in my general direction — you aren’t just failing to make an argument that resonates with me (that’s something most people are guilty of); you’re actively disrespecting years and years of work & thought and intellectually honest debate from smart, dedicated people who have wanted nothing else — not fame, not fortune, not power — than to help themselves and the general public understand how the people who originally put our country together would have wanted to deal with today’s issues.
Basically, there are a couple principles that I think define our country structurally, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and being pushed back, and rejiggering them, and so forth. But one of those principles is that the government isn’t here to establish any one religion, religion in general, or no religion at all. It’s an extraordinarily difficult task, but hey, we assigned it to ourselves, so we must have thought it was important. And like I said, I consider it one of the defining principles of our union, because no matter what, if anything, you believe, you’re affected by it (and in my opinion, affected very positively in the aggregate).
And while I stand by it, one thing this does tend to do is make people with strong cultural/religious views very, very greedy. Because we do our best to treat everyone in this country, from a religious standpoint, as their own little majority, eventually all of those groups start to think they actually are a majority. They don’t sit there and thank their lucky stars that they don’t live in a country where they have to hide in the attic, or pretend to convert to something — they think “what if the government really let us be us?”, where “really” means “let us use the power of the state to enhance our religious experience”? Now, I’m showing my bias here, but sometimes I think the only people who really get how important this system is are true agnostics, who have put themselves in a lot of different little religious shoes, and therefore realize how arrogant everyone really tends to get about this stuff. From my perspective, though — and no pun intended — hey, there but for the grace of God go I, you know? I mean, I know plenty of atheists who think we could finally root out thousand year old problems of war and peace if we could just stop believing in the old man in the clouds, and plenty of people from various Christian denominations who, for whatever reason, seem to think a government powered by actual, ecclesiastical Christianity would somehow get us “back” to a period of time that (A) we have no real evidence ever existed, and (B) even if it did, wasn’t nearly as nice as we’d like to think (subsistence farming and segregation, anyone? no?).
For whatever reason, Americans in general love the free market when it comes to products and consumables — and frankly, I’m a sucker for that, too. But where I seem to part ways with a lot of other people is in my love for a free market of ideas, particularly when they are vague, unprovable, and largely existential. You really have to grow up in a richly moral, but decidedly non-denominational household to understand how powerful true, personal convictions free of any dogma whatsoever can be. And you really have to work with someone guided largely by spiritual faith to understand the kinds of ridiculously amazing things those people can accomplish — and to see that these things are often mutually exclusive, simply by their nature. But either way, you absolutely have to let these people be these people. If you fail to do that, to actively protect the individual from the state the best you can, and from the tyranny of the majority (real or imagined), you don’t have America anymore. I don’t know what you have, but you don’t have this.
I really, truly believe, based on a mix of research and some degree of faith (ironically) that Jefferson & Adams got this. I don’t know how many people still do, but if we run out of them, or drive them all to Canada, we’re in serious, serious trouble.
UPDATE: Oh my God, I agree with Michael Gerson. Clearly this is an issue that transcends politics, and my increasing disdain for the Washington Post editorial page.