The Corner

Christine O’Donnell and the First Amendment

Some bloggers and tv commentators have seized on remarks by Christine O’Donnell to suggest that 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.” Here’s something I wrote about this question several years ago that, I think, is on point:

Conceptual clarity has not been a feature of the discussion of whether religion is having (or threatens to have) a dangerous influence on American government. People mean different things when they talk about “theocrats,” “the separation of church and state,” and “secularism.” The word “secular” can describe both irreligion and neutrality about religion. Yet commentators often throw around these words and phrases as though they had single, uncontested meanings—or, worse, exploit the instability of the phrase for polemical purposes.

Did the Founders often observe that churches and governments are engaged in different enterprises? Well, then, they established a principle of “secularism”—which is then held to require a revision in the Pledge of Allegiance, or funding for human cloning. Religious conservatives have done their part to add to the confusion. They have said, some of them, that they “don’t believe in the separation of church and state,” that it’s a “myth,” that it “isn’t in the Constitution.” Christians who say these things generally mean to endorse one or more of the following propositions: The Constitution does not make Thomas Jefferson’s understanding of the proper relationship between churches and governments mandatory; government may promote religion in some nonsectarian and non-coercive way; there is nothing wrong with voters’letting their religious beliefs influence their political views.

They do not, generally, mean that the government should set itself up as a kind of church, or vice versa. They accept the ACLU definition of separation, and therefore reject separation. But liberals, and much of the public, understand the conservatives to be denying the importance of religious liberty. Vague terminology keeps people talking past one another.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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