Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Was O’Donnell right about “Church and State?”

October 26, 2010 by Dr. Steve Frank


Publius 2.0 was fascinated last week by the flap over whether Christine O’Donnell knows her First Amendment rights. In a nutshell, O’Donnell, a candidate for Senate in Delaware, asked her opponent during a campaign debate where in the Constitution is “separation of church and state”? When he responded that the concept was rooted in the First Amendment’s “establishment clause,” she seemed perplexed. The debate went downhill (and the controversy skyrocketed) from there.

Whether O’Donnell meant that the words “separation of church and state” don’t appear in the First Amendment (true), or that the concept is absent (false) is where the matter now lies.

Technically, Publius 2.0 should have little to say about this. The Federalist essays he has been blogging about were written before the Constitution, much less the First Amendment, was adopted. And religious freedom is not one of the issues that the original Publius addressed in the struggle to get the Constitution ratified.

(It was only because Publius’s opponents insisted that guarantees of religious freedom and other fundamental rights be put in writing that today we have the Bill of Rights. Promising to get it passed after the Constitution was ratified was a political promise James Madison kept. Would that a single campaign-promise made by any congressional candidate today should have an equally salutary effect!)

Religion is too personal and too important for government to be involved.

But even though Publius didn’t weigh in on separation of church and state, Madison and his friend Thomas Jefferson were certainly its champions. Jefferson had been struggling for a decade to get the idea firmly established in Virginia with the adoption of a Statute for Religious Freedom, and in 1785 Madison joined him, writing a powerful petition to the Virginia Assembly that rallied backing for its passage:

“We maintain … that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance,” Madison wrote, adding:

Because Religion be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body …. The preservation of a free Government requires not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained; but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people.

In other words, religion is too personal and too important for government to be involved, and for that reason a “great Barrier” is needed to separate the two. Madison’s petition was written in response to a bill that would have established all Christian churches in Virginia to the exclusion of non-Christian faiths. Madison and Jefferson didn’t think that was right. They proposed a new order of religious life based on two principles: freedom of religious conscience and separation of church and state.

An interesting article in Sunday’s New York Times showed that like some politicians, Americans have a shaky grasp of those guarantees.

So here’s today’s question: Should politicians be required to pass a basic constitutional literacy test to qualify to run for office?


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