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Christine O'Donnell's misconceptions of the Constitution

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In a senate debate with Democratic nominee Chris Coons on Tuesday, Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell of Delaware questioned whether the U.S. Constitution calls for a separation of church and state.

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By Michael Gerson
Friday, October 22, 2010

The controversy surrounding Christine O'Donnell's constitutional views -- Does she deny the existence of the establishment clause? Dispute its location in the First Amendment? Reject that it mandates the "separation of church and state"? -- is mainly the result of the candidate's imprecision. On the evidence of her recent debate, O'Donnell's real problem is that this "constitutional conservative" seems unmotivated by any strong, developed views of the Constitution.

But her views of the First Amendment seem to represent a broader Tea Party belief. One intriguing finding of the recent American Values Survey is that 55 percent of Tea Party supporters believe that "America has always been and is currently a Christian nation." The figure among Christian conservatives is 49 percent. According to the survey, the Tea Party movement is less religious than the traditional Christian right. Yet a higher percentage of Tea Party supporters believe in a Christian America.

This was particularly evident in the patriotic piety of Glenn Beck's "return to God" rally on the Mall. It was civil religion revivalism. There was little evidence of racism or a longing for white privilege. But there was plenty of nostalgia for an idealized past in which government was smaller, social ties were stronger, and America was a Christian country.

This view is comforting to some -- as comforting as a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. It is consistent with populist movements before it. But it is flawed nonetheless. America is not a Christian country and has never been, for historical, theological and philosophic reasons.

First, the Constitution was designed for religious diversity because the Founders were religiously diverse. The 18th century was a time not of quiet piety but of religious controversy. It was a high tide of American Unitarianism, a direct challenge to Christian orthodoxy. Thomas Jefferson's deism flirted with atheism -- a God so distant that He didn't even require his own existence. As journalist Jon Meacham points out, the Founders were less orthodox than the generation that preceded them, as well as the one that followed them. Their commitment to disestablishment, in some cases, accommodated their own heterodoxy.

Second, American religious communities were often strong supporters of disestablishment. Dissenting Protestants had a long history of resentment for the established English church. Others -- Catholics and Quakers -- were minorities suspicious of majority religious rule. Christians generally saw state intrusion as a threat to their theological integrity and worldly power as a diversion from their mission. They supported disestablishment for the sake of the church. And their political independence contributed to their religious vitality.

Third, as my co-author Pete Wehner and I argue in "City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era," America was not founded as a Christian nation precisely because America's Founders were informed by a Jewish and Christian understanding of human nature. Since humans are autonomous moral beings created in God's image, freedom of conscience is essential to their dignity. At least where the federal government was concerned, the Founders asserted that citizens should be subject to God and their conscience, not to the state.

The Founders were not secularists. They assumed that people would bring their deepest moral motivations to political life -- motivations often informed by religious belief. But they firmly rejected sectarianism. America was designed to be a nation where all faiths are welcomed, not where one faith is favored. This was and is the American genius.

So does the Constitution, in Jefferson's gloss, require the "separation of church and state"? Institutionally, yes. Theologically, yes with one notable exception. Nearly all the most important teachings of faith -- doctrines on individual salvation or the destination of history -- have no public role or relevance. They are compromised by contact with power. But one belief -- a belief in the nature and rights of human beings -- is the basis of any political philosophy, including our own. It matters greatly if "all men are created equal" or not.

Religious faith remains one of the main foundations for belief in human equality and dignity -- as it was in the Declaration of Independence. But this conviction leads in a different direction than some religious people imagine. It is honored by respecting the priority of conscience.

michaelgerson@washpost.com


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