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Giving O'Donnell the benefit of the doubt

Christine O'Donnell Is Christine O'Donnell getting a bum rap for her ingenuous question,  "Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?"  It depends on whether the  Delaware Senate candidate intended  to put quotation marks around "separation of church and state." That's what her defenders seem to think -- that she was asking (rhetorically?) where the words "separation of church and state" could be found in the Constitution.

The answer, of course, is nowhere. Thomas Jefferson's famous metaphor of a "wall of separation" appears in a letter, not in the Constitution. Some conservatives harp on this omission, suggesting that the absence of the S-word renders suspect decades of court decisions interpreting the 1st Amendment's ban on an "establishment of religion." Was O'Donnell obliquely making this point?

It's possible, I suppose. The alternative explanation -- that she didn't know the 1st Amendment embodied the concept of church-state separation -- is pretty depressing to contemplate. But so is a lot of what O'Donnell says. 

-- Michael McGough

Credit: AP Photo / Robert Craig




Comments () | Archives (28)

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The WAPO story that was used as the basis for this "quote" was in error. Her exact words were "the phrase Sepration of Church and State?" And newspaper people wonder why they are so distrusted?

Michael McGough

I didn't hear "the phrase" when I listened to the tape.


Believe me, this bozo brain doesn't know the meaning of rhetorical. The YouTube video of the debate was excruciating to watch and I live clear across the country from Delaware. This person has no business trying to flub her way into politics at the expense of the voters. Get the hook, PLEASE!!!


Roll the tape please. There was NO "the phrase Sepration of Church and State?". Some things/people are indefencible. Let it go!! Some people are not bright enough to lead. It is that simple.


"O'Donnell obliquely making this point". Ha, I would be surprised if she is intelligent enough to do that.


Thanks for acknowledging that the "separation of church and state" term comes from a letter from Thomas Jefferson, not the Constitution. It should also be noted that Jefferson did not write the Constitution.


You can't fix stupid.


Mr. McGough,
Many of us believe the founding fathers never intented a "separation of church and state" to mean no exercise of religion at government sponsored organizations (e.g. public schools). Only that no religion would become the officially sponsored religion of the state or states. We saw this in England or see this in Iran or Saudi Arabia or Syria.
And the constitution says that the state shall not prohibit the free expression of religion. If founding fathers meant government sponsored or funded organizations to prevent religious expression then First amendment has a inherent conflict: can't make laws that sponsor a religion but can't prevent free expression religion.
We see a new case considered by the Supreme Court almost every year on what this phrase in the First Amendment means and allows.

Mitchell Young

She's made shamefully hateful comments about the Onanist community. Keep this bigot out of office.



"Only that no religion would become the officially sponsored religion of the state or states."

Actually, as I understand, state churches were common until the 1800's.

I still don't believe "intelligent design" should be taught in science classes. Put it in social studies classes where religious ideas can be discussed in contrast to each other.


It is interesting how because O'Donnell was basically right no one can actually come out and say she is right. Why? When will we hear about Harry and Joe's gaff today in Nevada? Oh we will not will we!! They are protected but O'Donnell is held to every word or letter she speaks.

Law Student

Regardless of how she phrased the question, O'Donnell was correct.
For those of you who hold the opinion that she isn't intelligent enough to lead: would you rather have a person in power who misquotes or misunderstands the very basis of our country's laws? Not being bright enough to lead and not being bright enough to understand who is leading you go hand in hand in this country it seems.
And as far as making comments that may offend people, do a YouTube search for Joe Biden (hint: he is our Vice President).
Finally, if you feel like candidates are not fit to run for office, I invite you to enter yourself in to the race. Be careful though, people might think you are stupid, unfit to lead and a bigot.


First we would have to assume that she would understand what it would mean to obliquely make a point. Then we would have to allow that she could process that the founders actually thought conceptually about these issues. That's much more than a seven-day fellowship would have time to cover. And this is 2010. Amazing...

Connie H

She was correct that this was never in the Constitution. The letter it was in was from Thomas Jefferson who was saying that government should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,". Sadly rather than protecting our ability to worship God and keep the basic Christian values that this country was founded on, some judges and the ACLU have supported the view (and lie) that it means we can not have God or any Christian references in school, government or even public. How sad and unfortunate for this country and the future of it!


Any candidate of any political persuasion that hides from the press wants you to believe they are qualified and fear instant disqualification when their past, their beliefs, their political stances come to light.

Take a look at this blog post on "Running from the Press"



She's right, you're wrong. It's that simple.

The Constitution isn't a liberal wish-fulfillment list. It says what it says. Just because liberals have no idea what's actually in the Constitution does not make Christine O'Donnell wrong.

The first amendment was meant to prevent an establishment of a national religion ala The Church of England. That's a far cry from a complete separation of Church and State.

Not even court precedents go that far, from what I read. They talk about separation as far as possible.

Melvin Painter

"You can't fix stupid."

And that is why we will be throwing Obama out in 2012.


The argument preceded the Constitution is what is known as the Federalist Papers mostly written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton urging ratification of the new Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, the primary penner of the DOI, was intentionally left out of the mix at the Constitutional Convention as he was sent to be ambassador to France after his dear wife's sudden death and the fact his strong rhetoric was seen as an impediment to achieving consensus. Maybe Ms. O'Donnell should complete her college education by reading these very important documents. Mr. McGough would also be similarly served.

JF Quackenbush

for those folks insisting on harping on the technicality let's parse the clause so you know what it means: "congress" which, according to Article I is the sole source of positive law allocating expenditures for the federal government "shall make no law" which means that congress can't do something which means that what's about to follow is going to cut an area of legislation specifically out of congress's realm "respecting" meaning in any way peripherally connected "to an establishment of religion" meaning both state religions as well as non-state affiliated establishments of religion (is your local church mosque or synagogue not an establishment of religion? is the bible not an establishment of religion? I'd be very careful about saying no there, it's probably blasphemy). What that means is that congress can neither establish religion (by mandating prayer in schools or paying to display religious iconography with public funds) nor can it restrict the practices of non-state religious establishments. For the record, Congress can't ban prayer in schools or prevent schools from having faith based organizations, but neither can it sponsor religion by having institutional prayer. Children can pray in schools all they want to, but they can't be forced to. That's what the constitution says and that is what Jefferson was referring to as the principle he paraphrased as erecting a wall of separation between church and state. And lest you start talking like Sharon Angle saying he's been "misquoted out of context" I suggest you investigate Mr. Jefferson's attitudes towards christianity as displayed in his edited version of the Bible.

Patrick Cortes

I doubt very seriously that she knows what the word "oblique" means, let alone how to do anything in said manner. You may exit stage right, Not-Senator O'Donnell.


She should have affirmed that she knew what the 1st amendment said but that it doesn't explicitly say or exactly imply "separation." This should have happened immediately after the laughter began. Heck, even Sara Palin would have done this and tried to save face.


Anyone who's defending this incompetent clown is as stupid as she is.


I am so sincerely surprised that there are people defending Ms. O'Donnell's recent debate. She has claimed time and time again to be a constitutional scholar and this debate was just one of many instances that prove she is not even a mediocre scholar of the Constitution. Recall earlier in the tape when she couldn't recall what the other Amendments were. Would you give her the benefit of the doubt for that? I sincerely hope not. Especially since she was in a law school where hundreds of young students would have been able to out-quote her.

I am truly appalled that there are so many wing-nuts that are trying to defend her. I'm sure she's a wonderful person, but I just can't for the life of me see how it is that people want her to be a U.S. Senator.


As O'Donnell didn't say, "the WORDS 'separation of church and state,'" she was clearly referring to the CONCEPT. Her ignorance of the Constitution would be shocking but for the litany of misstatements that have tumbled from her lips since the beginning of her candidacy, yet she and her supporters continue to believe that she is fit to hold elective office.

Tore Simonsen

I am aware of the first amendment. I am aware the government is outsourcing the first amendment. Are you? http://bit.ly/bBDzAb

Mitchell Young

I thought that a Catholic priest had been a congressman, so I did some searching and sure enough not one but two priests had served -- Father Robert Drinan (SJ!) and Fr. Robert John Cornell. Both were Democrats, Drinan a particularly hard left Democrat. Both left office, not at the order of the ACLU, but because John Paul II told them to stop mucking about.

Thinking, gee, the Republicans probably had a protestant pastor or two in Congress, I searched again. I came up with Adam Clayton Powell Jr. -- a Democrat from Harlem and pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a black baptist congregation. No points for guessing Powell's party affiliation. Perhaps the Republicans have (or had) clergy in Congress, but my brief search hasn't found any.

These results show that it is most often the Left that mixes church and state in a very direct way.


Just one more oppurtunity to witness the bias of the media. As colorful Senate candidates go, just look at the print and TV time the biased media devotes to O'Donnell and then compare that to the
attention they are drawing to "the every move and breath" by Democrat Alvin Green in South Carolina?
Remember him? Where is the media when such a colorful and controversial candidate runs on the Liberal Democrat ticket?

Just what's in it for the media to be so partisan? Do they get some Quid Pro Quo or is it just that they are a product of the indoctrination
all students get in our educational institutions?

Jon Healey

@Phillup -- There are more than 450 races for the House and Senate this year, so the national media looks only at the ones where there's actually a contest. The national press has ignored Alvin Greene since the primary because he has no chance of winning, just as it's pretty much ignored Nancy Pelosi's re-election campaign because she has virtually no chance of losing.



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