The Election

November 1, 2010

CFI is not a partisan organization; it is a nonprofit that, under the law, must refrain from endorsing candidates and political parties. I will honor those restrictions here—not just because I have to, but because I believe they are appropriate.

But even though I cannot endorse candidates, I can talk about issues.

This mid-term election is interesting from a variety of perspectives. One reason I find it interesting is that a number of candidates have made “a return” to the principles of the Constitution an important part of their message, and this appeal has gained some traction among a sizeable number of voters, according to various surveys. In fact, the importance of the Constitution has been referenced more frequently during this campaign than in any other campaign that I can recall (with the possible exception of the 1974, post-Watergate, mid-term).

I am all for reminding voters of the importance of the Constitution, which, despite its flaws, has provided the U.S. with a stable government and has proven to be an important guarantor of fundamental freedoms. Unfortunately, in this election there seems to be an inverse relationship between the frequency with which a candidate invokes the Constitution and the knowledge that candidate actually possesses about the Constitution. The most extraordinary claims have been made about the Constitution, such as the claim that unemployment benefits are unconstitutional and that individual states have the right to secede. The claim I want to focus on here, however, is the claim that the Constitution does not provide for the separation of church and state.

This claim has been advanced by a number of candidates, and when pressed to provide support for their claim, the response is either a blank stare or the observation that the Constitution does not actually contain the words “separation of church and state.”

This vacuous observation has long been an intrinsic part of the creed of the Religious Right. (You remember the Religious Right don’t you? It’s that movement that supposedly had been dealt a death blow in the 2008 elections.) Its reappearance in this election cycle is proof that stupidities never die—they just get uttered by new people.

It is true that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution. But, of course, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has long been interpreted to require a separation of church and state. Indeed, the actual constitutional language arguably goes further, prohibiting the government from enacting any law respecting (i.e., regarding) an establishment of religion. The government is directed to stay out of religious matters completely, necessarily implying that religious functions are to be kept separate and distinct from government functions.

The silly argument that the Constitution does not provide for separation of church and state because those exact words do not appear in the Constitution has the intellectual weight of a game of “Simon says.” Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument would imply, among other things, that the government can torture you (the Eighth Amendment does not contain the word “torture”) and videotape your bedroom activities without your consent (video recordings are not mentioned in the Fourth Amendment). Moreover, candidates for office might have to be much older than we currently believe because the Constitution does not expressly distinguish between Earth years and Martian years.

As one candidate has observed, it’s not a requirement of public office that an elected official memorize the Constitution. But one would hope that those who seek the responsibility of being our legislators would have some acquaintance with logic and history.

Of course, that’s not a requirement either. Any idiot can run for office. Some might argue that is one of the weaknesses of our democracy. But it’s only a weakness if the idiots win the election. That’s where you come in. If you have not done so already, please vote tomorrow.



#1 Freemason Ed (Guest) on Monday November 01, 2010 at 5:31pm

I thought you new atheists were changing the world for the better with your smug, self-assured, moralistic aggressiveness. Why the sudden reappearance of the extreme right-wing in American politics…coming right on the heals of the last four years of changing hearts and minds to atheism?? Well, at least Ronald has his bogeyman back to flail in his next fund-drive letter.

#2 Strubie on Monday November 01, 2010 at 7:13pm

I have the US and Texas Constitutions on my Kindle.  I read a bit of them every day.  I think it would be a good idea for the federal government to issue Kindles to all federal lawmakers, enforcers and political candidates with copies of the Constitution on them (one would assume that federal justices already know the constitution, but hey, they can have one too if it helps).

#3 lucette (Guest) on Thursday November 04, 2010 at 6:54pm

You don’t need Kindles to read the Constitution. We still have something called “paper.”

#4 Tradition Of Progress on Friday November 05, 2010 at 8:06pm

First, who thought that the Religious Right died at the 2008 elections?  Before, during,  and after the 2008 election,  the Faux news pundits and others like Rush Limbaugh became more aggressive.  Pat Robertson made a claim that Haitians made a deal with the Devil.  Pat Buchanan complained that the Supreme Court is having too many Jews in it when six of the nine Justices are Roman Catholic.  What about the New York Times article about the Texas School Board rewriting history?  Apparently the majority of Texans believe that Young-Earth Creationists are the most qualified to distinguish history from mythology.
Second, the writers of Free Inquiry keep visiting the ignorance of Church State Separation, but refuse to actually look into the heart of the problem: Education.
Many of us first learned about the Separation of Church and State in Elementary school.  Our teachers either quoted Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists, or they paraphrased it.  We all understood that this is a pluralistic nation.  We also learned about the Separation of Church and State in Church, Temple or Synagogue.  Many of us belonged to mainstream denominations (Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism) that passionately supported Church state Separation for over a century.  In previous centuries, Baptist ministers like Roger Williams and George Mason were major supporters of it. Separation of Church and state used to be part of the traditions of these religious groups.  Back to education though: In high school and college, we had to read at least portions of Spirit of the Law and 2nd Treatise on Government, so it appears to us as if the Christine O’Donnells must have been delinquents or other types that are hostile to education.  But this is not the case.
There are actually plenty of history teachers and professors who teach that U. S. A. is and always has been a “Christian Nation” and that the founding fathers were conservative Christians who had no intention of having a secular government.  At one picnic, I met a professor, Richard R. John of the University of Illinois at Chicago whose view on Church State separation was about the same as that of Antonin Scalia.  The New York Times article on the Texas School board also mentioned another professor at University of Illinois at Chicago who completely agreed with the Texas school board.  These are not pseudo-professors at Liberty University or some other non-accredited diploma mill—these are real history professors with Ph.D.’s.
With the amount of public ignorance on Church State separation and the Enlightenment, one can conclude that the majority of history professors and history teachers in the U.S. deny that there ever was a period known as “The Enlightenment” and maintain that the U.S. constitution is “based on Christianity”.  If there are any history professors living today who acknowledge the role of the Enlightenment in the development of our nation’s Constitution, then why do they refuse to challenge the ones who teach the Right-Wing Christianized version of history and civics?
What has happened in history education is analogous to the situation in Science education, only in Science education, most science teachers will fight to keep creationism out of the science class room, but in history education, the teachers themselves have no problem excluding the Enlightenment and the Separation of Church and State from the classroom.  Free Inquiry and the Center of Free Inquiry have chosen to ignore this elephant in the room.  There has been an issue featuring “The Republican War on Science” but there has yet to be one about this enormous sectarian war on history and civics education.

#5 Tradition Of Progress on Friday November 05, 2010 at 8:29pm

I think I might have included the wrong name of the history professor, or the name of the wrong professor, or implicated the wrong guy in my previous post.  I am also now uncertain about the whether I go the right universities.  Can my post (and this one) be removed so I can edit that out, and have some time to do a fact check?

#6 Tradition Of Progress on Friday November 05, 2010 at 8:47pm

I meant: “I am also now uncertain that I named the correct universities.”

#7 Tradition Of Progress on Saturday November 06, 2010 at 3:16pm

Okay, since my post has not been deleted, and I cannot edit it, I’ll just have to update here.  The professor who is supportive of the Texas Schoolboard is actually a University of Chicago emeritus professor—NOT University of Illinois at Chicago.  From rereading the article, it does not show that he “completely aggrees” with the Texas School Board, but he does appear to support their view.

I am still not sure if the professor whom I met, who spoke about “Original Intent”, reminding me of Antonin Scalia, (also the title of one of David Barton theocratic volumes) is the proefessor that I named.

The name I gave matches the name of one who seems to be quite impressive and honorable, so if he is the same one I spoke with, then I hope I misunderstood him or that he was playing “Devil’s advocate”.

I still stand by the idea that Ph.D.‘d history professors who support the ideas expressed by Jefferson on the issue, should publicly challenge the idea that the U. S. is and always should be a “Christian Nation”.

#8 Ronald A. Lindsay on Sunday November 07, 2010 at 9:46am

@ Tradition of Progress First, on a technical point: our blog does not allow commenters to delete or edit comments, but you did exactly what one is supposed to do when one realizes one may have made a misstatement, namely, you posted another comment clarifying maters. Thank you for taking the time to do so.

You make a couple of good points. There may not be as many historians willing to engage in public battle with the Religious Right as there are scientists who are willing to stand up for evolution. Not sure why that is, except perhaps the perception that less may be at stake in historical disputes and the belief that historical interpretation may not lend itself to clear-cut answers. I’m not endorsing these views; I’m just suggesting them as possible explanations.

But there are several historians who have engaged the Religious Right. Steven Green from Willamette University is probably the best known and certainly the most tireless opponent of those who distort constitutional history.

Your suggestion that FI do an issue focusing on history and civics education in our schools is well-taken. I’ll pass your suggestion on to the editor.

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