You're telling me we can't breathe in space?
Unfortunately for Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, that education -- which came at Delaware's Widener Law on Thursday -- was courtesy of her opponent in the race, Democrat Chris Coons, in the midst of their second debate.
After scolding Coons for his lack of knowledge of constitutional law for stating that intelligent design should not be taught in public schools (a matter decided in a scathing decision in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover School District), O'Donnell challenged her rival on his assertion that the U.S. Constitution creates a distinct separation between church and state.
"Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?" O'Donnell asked. Upon hearing her words, the audience in the room burst into laughter.
Later in the proceedings, after fielding questions on the candidates' views on repealing the 14th, 16th and 17th Amendments, Coons returned the conversation to the question of the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.
"I absolutely oppose the widespread proposals by tea party candidates for us to repeal the 14th, 16th or 17th amendments." Coons said. "I also think you just heard, in the answers from my opponent, and in her attempt at saying 'where is the separation of church and state in the constitution' reveals her fundamental misunderstanding of what our Constitution is, how it is amended and how it evolved. 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 then interrupted. "The First Amendment does?" she asked, skeptically.
Coons continued his explanation, and O'Donnell interrupted again. "So you're telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?"
Coons went on to cite cases the Supreme Court had decided that backed up the position of a wall between church and state.
"Let me just clarify," O'Donnell pressed. "You're telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?"
"The government shall make no establishment of religion," Coons said, summarizing the gist of the specific words in the First Amendment's establishment clause.
"That's in the First Amendment?" O'Donnell asked again, eliciting further laughter from the room.
As the video of the event spread across the Internet, the reviews of O'Donnell's latest performance were not kind.
New York Magazine's Daily Intel quipped:
For someone hoping to serve in the Senate of the United States, saying "You're telling me that [the establishment clause is] in the First Amendment?" is like a prospective astronaut saying, "You're telling me we can't breathe in space?" It's like a heart surgeon walking into the operating room and asking, "You're telling me there are four chambers in the pumpy thing?" And so on.
NPR's Frank James put it this way:
Just when you thought Christine O'Donnell, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Delaware, could do nothing further to top herself, she does.
At a Tuesday morning debate with her Democratic rival Chris Coons, she appeared to be aggressively ignorant of the fact that the First Amendment requires the separation of church and state.
But politics is a matter of perspective, and not everyone saw a glass half-empty in O'Donnell's First Amendment questioning.
The National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru took the contrarian view that O'Donnell was arguing something else entirely:
Some bloggers and TV commentators have seized on remarks by Christine O'Donnell to suggest she is unaware that the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion. I don't think that's right. What she denies is that the First Amendment requires "the separation of church and state."
And indeed, a spokesperson for O'Donnell later offered the following by way of clarification (via The Daily Caller):
"In this morning's WDEL debate, Christine O'Donnell was not questioning the concept of separation of church and state as subsequently established by the courts," said campaign manager Matt Moran. "She simply made the point that the phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution."
==== 1802 Letter by a certain Thomas J. =====
To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.
Jan. 1. 1802.
If you read the comments in the AOL news article...
you will be frightened. There is an audience that would
kill for religion.