Politics & Policy

Can Enough Tea Tear Down This False Wall?

Unholy faux–First Amendment politics.

Christine O’Donnell may have had to deny being a witch, but she wasn’t the only Halloween bogeyman for Democrats to trick voters with this election year. Did you hear the one about how Republican candidate fill-in-the-blank, in fill-in-the-district, wants to privatize Social Security? Even the former president of the United States, George W. Bush, got thrown into that mix for regretting not managing to get his Social Security plan passed — which would not have privatized Social Security. But being serious is not what Halloween (or, sometimes, an election campaign) is about.

And then there is religion. The fear of God takes on a whole new meaning this time of year. Folks on the right of the political spectrum want to create a religious state, you know. We want to tear down the wall between church and state. We’ll be talking about Delaware Senate candidate O’Donnell’s supposed mistakes on the First Amendment for a while to come. I expect to see mention of her remarks in year-end wrap-ups. I expect that Republican presidential-primary candidates will be asked about them in Iowa.

Of course, as every U.S.-history grad student (hopefully) knows, that “wall of separation” we hear so much about was not in the U.S. Constitution — and still isn’t. It is, rather, a quote from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson. As Gerard V. Bradley, law professor at the University of Notre Dame, tells me, O’Donnell’s comments “should not . . . be the occasion for the kind of eye-rolling ridicule they have attracted.”

So can we stop laughing at Christine O’Donnell for saying them? Furthermore, can the party of former altar boy Joe Biden stop pretending it keeps a hermetically sealed wall between religion and politics? A soundtrack of Nancy Pelosi saying, “Thank God for the nuns” — for their support of the health-care bill — could have been playing on a recent conference call from agroup called Catholics United. In defense of Democrats Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania and Steve Driehaus of Ohio, a Sister Marlene Bertke was brought on to denounce billboards paid for by the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group that finds itself endorsing many more Republicans than Democrats because of the choices Democrats tend to make on the issue of abortion. The SBA List billboards accused Dahlkemper and Driehaus of endorsing taxpayer-funded abortion when they voted for the health-care legislation. Now the fact is, members of Congress who voted for that bill were uncertain — at best – that it would protect human life from taxpayer-funded abortion. This debate has become even more contentious since the bill’s passage, pitting self-identified pro-life Democrats against those, like the Susan B. Anthony List and the National Right to Life Committee, who believe they betrayed their principles when they voted for the legislation.

To provide political cover, and to further confuse an already hyper-complicated issue, liberal women religious are being trotted out to support the congressmen who voted for Obamacare. This has now become a mainstay of this debate, meant to shut down all conversation: Sister has spoken!On this particular occasion, it was Sister Marlene of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie who came to Dahlkemper’s defense. “The false advertising that is taking place is morally wrong,” she declared. (She has also been quoted as saying that “George Bush is the exact opposite of all Benedictine values,” which rather weakens her attempt to claim a debate-ending, nonpartisan moral high ground.) It’s hard to take seriously all the scare tactics about how the Right wants to create a religious state when such a massive expansion of the state as Obamacare was passed behind the polyester skirts of liberal nuns.

But even those who retain a residual fear of conservative religious values should be able to join in a moment of bipartisan outrage over Minnesota Democrats’ recent mailings in a state-senate race, showing a man wearing a priest’s collar and an “Ignore the Poor” button. They are protesting a particular candidate’s refusal to denounce some of Republican governor Tim Pawlenty’s budget cuts. Instead of having a debate over policy, they have chosen to jump out of the bushes and shout “Boo!” They’re hoping that terrifies voters enough to make them vote Democratic.

When the health-care legislation passed, there were also the voices of the body of Catholic bishops of the United States (not usually known as an arm of the Republican party) and of a not-shrinking-violet group of traditional religious sisters who had something to say about the dangers of the legislation. Those voices were drowned out by a Democratic majority in Washington, liberal special-interest groups, trade associations (including the Catholic Health Association), and the media.

The upside to all this is what you saw during the health-care debate — which continues today — namely, an acknowledgement that religion absolutely plays a role in the lives of Americans. As Carl Anderson points out in his important new book, Beyond a House Divided, most of us share a lot of the same values, despite the divide that politics and culture frequently suggest exists among us. Further, as Anderson writes, “The American consensus on religion’s role in the public discourse is not just a national mood, it’s a fact founded in American history.” We cannot afford to expunge it. We should not co-opt it. We should embrace it in the most honest and transparent of ways. In God we trust. And for political prudence we pray.

With divine power comes humble responsibility.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at klopez@nationalreview.com. This column is available exclusively through United Media. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact Carmen Puello.


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