What The Constitution Says About Church And State

Many believe the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly declares the separation of church and state. But Senate hopeful Christine O'Donnell alluded recently to the fact that the phrase never appears there. Syndicated columnist Clarence Page says O'Donnell was right — but that the First Amendment clearly aims to separate church from government.

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But I wanted to switch subjects and talk with Clarence Page about a column that he wrote recently. Now, Democrats have pounced on a couple of Republican Senate candidates who questioned the constitutional basis for the principle of the separation of church and state. Here in Delaware, you can hear the reaction at a debate in a law school when Republican Christine O'Donnell brought this up.

Ms. CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (Republican Senate Candidate, Delaware): Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHRIS COONS (Democratic Senate Candidate, Delaware): It's in - an excellent point.

CONAN: In a recent piece for the Chicago Tribune, Clarence Page wrote that was not a gaffe, as many thought, but a calculated remark. It's also emerged as an issue in Colorado, where another Tea Party favorite, Republican Ken Buck, argued that the Constitution does not explicitly use the phrase separation of church and state. And Clarence, you wrote, technically, of course, they're right.

Mr. PAGE: You can throw Sharron Angle in there, too. She says Thomas Jefferson has been quoted out of context or misquoted out of context, as she says she has been, too. But, yes, it does not explicitly say separation of church and state. That comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to reassure Baptists in Connecticut that the Constitution would not result in the state being able to penalize people who werent part of a state church.

CONAN: And he wrote about a wall between church and state.

Mr. PAGE: That's right, a wall between church and state. And it's important to note that at that time it was viewed that the Constitution only applied to the federal government, not to the states. And the states still had their, in some cases, had their official churches or could have one under the law at that time. It's only since then that later decisions have you had justices quoting separation of church in state, in fact, and saying that while the church -religion is protected from the government and government is protected from religion.

CONAN: And this has been a principle widely accepted, so what are Ken Buck and Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell saying when they question this lack of phrase in the Constitution?

Mr. PAGE: The two-word answer is culture war. This is really an extension of the good versus evil culture wars that we saw breaking out in the '60s and since. Ever since, say, the Supreme Court decision that bans school prayer, you've had efforts by religious activists to try to get more religion into schools and public places.

And they've also been angered, justifiably in my view in some cases, at the seeming war against religion, against having any religious display in public places. The courts have kind of tried to strike a happy medium, for example, on, you know, Christmas displays, Hanukkah displays. That they're either open to all religions or to none. So we are now seeing displays from druids and wiccans that we didn't see before.

CONAN: So this is the same, in a way, the same battle over the, well, display of the Ten Commandments, for example.

Mr. PAGE: Absolutely same battle. This is - and that's what is interesting here. You know, this is what they call in politics a dog whistle...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAGE: ...where the candidate says something in a debate that a lot of people may laugh, but others who are part of the base they're trying to reach, they say, ah, he's with us or she's with us.

CONAN: So this is something that would make an audience at a law school in Delaware laugh when she says it, how could she be so dumb? But some people would say, wait a minute, I know exactly what she's talking about.

Mr. PAGE: Absolutely. Many Christian conservatives out there, just to name one religious group, say, oh, good, she's going to protect religion and help us to, well, impart those values, as Sharron Angle says, those values into the public square.

CONAN: And this is part - there have been several candidates, I think Joe Miller in Alaska is another one, who have talked about we need to go back to the Constitution. We need to go back...

Mr. PAGE: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: ...to the Founding Fathers. And this is all part of this culture war that you're talking about?

Mr. PAGE: Well, yeah. You know, this is what's amusing to me that so many people these days are saying I believe in the Constitution, I want to support the Constitution, and then in the next line, they want to change it in some way, you know, either get rid of birthright citizenship or change one amendment or another.

CONAN: Get rid of the 17th Amendment.

Mr. PAGE: Direct election of the Senate.

CONAN: Direct election of the Senate.

Mr. PAGE: Right. You know, this sort of thing, you know, we got to love the Constitution in order to change it. But anyway, this is, though, a very serious matter with the people in the base. And the base is what turns out in midterm elections. So that's why we're talking about this now in the public square, whereas this might not be an issue every election.

CONAN: Ken, I wanted to ask you, I think that most people figured the race in Delaware, and we talked about the Republicans trying to notch a victory in getting President Obama's old Senate seat, they wanted to get Joe Biden's old Senate seat, too. That's not going to happen. But we talked about the situation in Colorado. That race is very close. And who knows what's happening in Alaska.

RUDIN: Exactly. And of course, you know, the Republicans had a golden opportunity with Mike Castle, the longtime congressman, former governor, former lieutenant governor, who was the odds-on favorite to be the Republican nominee for Joe Biden's Senate seat that he held for 36 years until Christine O'Donnell beat him. But there are conservatives says, look, we stand for something. We're a conservative party.

Mike Castle, he may be very popular with the general electorate, and yet he's kind of liberal on many social issues. He's not the kind of guy who represents the conservatives in the Republican Party who have been outraged by not only the Democrats and Obama, but the establishment Republicans. Now, we still have a lot of things to watch in Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, who was defeated by Joe Miller, running a write-in campaign. But Joe Miller, again, a very Republican state in Alaska, Joe Miller could win it. Ken Buck could win it. And the fact is...

CONAN: In Colorado, yeah.

RUDIN: In Colorado. And in Nevada - you know, Harry Reid has not only not pulled away, I have not seen him leading in any poll. And again, I've said this over and over again, if Sharron Angle, whos been discredited, mocked for whatever her views are, if she can defeat a sitting Senate majority leader of, you know, of the United States Senate, then that just shows how much angry -how much anger and distrust there is out in this country.

CONAN: Clarence?

Mr. PAGE: I fully agree. And they know - the immigration issue plays well for her. I mean, its been a perfect storm in her favor. And Harry Reid has - has run a remarkably inept campaign in many peoples' views. I mean - or just a weak campaign for a state that has, normally, a strong Democratic registration. It hasn't helped him.

RUDIN: And I think part of the problem also is is that if you're in Nevada and you say, look, Harry Reid could bring all these things back home to us, but if unemployment is just gigantic and home foreclosures are just tremendous, well, what is Harry Reid bringing to Nevada? What are we getting out of it?

Mr. PAGE: Right.

RUDIN: And I think that's why there are more and more people more prone to vote for Sharron Angle.

Mr. PAGE: Right.

CONAN: We're talking with our Political Junkie Ken Rudin. He will be here with us, of course, on Wednesday to look at the results of the election next Tuesday. And we may be talking with him on Monday and Tuesday, too. It's working out that way. I know we're going to talk...

RUDIN: I'm available Saturday and Sunday too.

CONAN: Yes, well - but we don't have the show. Do you know anything about science of...

RUDIN: No, no.

CONAN: Anyway. Get Ira to get you on the show tomorrow. We also have Clarence Page, a syndicated columnist from the Chicago Tribune. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And Clarence, a lot of people are saying, wait a minute, we're electing new kinds - we may elect new kinds of Republicans this time around, the Tea Party candidates, as we mentioned Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, and people like that, perhaps Joe Miller from Alaska. There's many people running for the House of Representatives as well.

And the members of the Tea Party are saying, we are going to hold you accountable. There will be no comprise. We are going to make you - we're going to watch and see if you endorse the positions you said you were going to endorse. Don't vote for deficit spending. Don't vote to raise the debt limit. Vote to defund President Obama's health care law. Is every Republican, after the election on Tuesday, going to be saying, I better watch out for my primary?

Mr. PAGE: Well, certainly, if Republicans take one or both houses, they're going to have to do more than just be the party of no. They're going to have to come up with something they don't have right now, which is a clear agenda, a clear - a program to come in with and offer as an alternative.

I suspect a lot of people are suspecting a similar scenario to what happened with the Newt Gingrich Congress back in '94 that - the Republicans came in then with quite a bit of hubris about their mandate. And just like Democrats have been known to do an occasion in the past, too. And...

CONAN: Whoever wins seems to have this problem, yes.

Mr. PAGE: Yeah. Well, you remember the two government shutdowns we had. And those - and the polls showed the public blamed the Republicans for that. It was a big setback and Bill Clinton came back with a landslide reelection. So you know, anything can happen. A lot of it depends on what the Republican leaders can do. They've got a tiger by the tail here, though. Any big victory for Republicans now will be viewed as a Tea Party victory, and they owe the Tea Party something.

CONAN: Ken.

RUDIN: And the difference - one difference between the Republican Party between now and 1994 is that in '94, they always seemed to be on the same page. They had moderates. They may even had some liberals, and they had certainly had conservatives. Whereas now, there seems to be more of a litmus test than ever. And folks like Olympia Snowe and even Orrin Hatch, for example, senators - or Dick Lugar of Indiana, senators who may have strayed across the line once too often may be faced with a very strong right wing primary challenge.

CONAN: And as we look ahead to this situation, there's going to be questions about the leadership as well. Some wonder if John Boehner is going to be the Speaker of the House, should Republicans take the House, and there are others who might challenge him. And, of course, there's going to be another power in the United States Senate. Jim DeMint in South Carolina is emerging as a very strong Republican leader.

Mr. PAGE: Yeah, I think Boehner is safe - you know, if the Republicans take a majority of the House, as I think they will, Boehner is safe as speaker, although it's fascinating to me that he has survived this long given that under his leadership, the Republicans lost 30 seats - in 2006, 21 seats in 2008, and yet Boehner survived.

Boehner does - is - there are lot of wings the Republican Party who still feel very comfortable with John Boehner. And he is not the lighting rod that Newt Gingrich was in '94, and especially '95 when they tried to shut down the government.

CONAN: But what about rivals in the Senate?

Mr. PAGE: Well, McConnell will be the leader. And I don't think there will be a challenge to him, but clearly Jim DeMint has basically made it clear that he wants true believers and he doesn't want the Lisa Murkowskis of the world and the Charlie Crists of the world. And so there may be a very strong power struggle with the Republican Party in the Senate, but I suspect that McConnell will not be challenged for that.

CONAN: I think he's going to get his way on Charlie Crist, at least according to the latest polls in Florida. But, Clarence, as you look ahead...

Mr. PAGE: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...a lot of people are saying if people thought not a lot got done in the last two years of Congress, just wait till the next two years.

Mr. PAGE: Yeah. I'm thinking about - you know, Mr. McConnell will be from a Kentucky delegation that may include Rand Paul. It'll be interesting to see how they work together. But there is...

CONAN: Mitch McConnell endorsed and worked for Rand Paul's rival in the Republican primary.

Mr. PAGE: Well, yeah. Though, no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, but...

CONAN: Permanent interests.

Mr. PAGE: Yeah. Exactly. Jim DeMint is showing that kind of spirit that led South Carolina to lead the Confederacy. Frankly, it's the - there's a sense there that it's better to have nothing happen in the Senate than to have anything more that would be sympathetic to the left. That's the way DeMint views things. So it could be a little obstructionism going on.

CONAN: Ken.

RUDIN: And what lesson do you get from the 2010 elections? If the Republicans do really well, you can say, well, why do I need to accommodate? I've been saying no, no, no. I've been standing up for my conservative principles and I won. So why - so, you know, obviously the American people are not demanding that I be accommodating. Otherwise, they wouldn't have elected me in November.

Mr. PAGE: Quite right. And that's going to be interesting to see what the folks back home want. We've seen an anti-pork spirit that I have found - rather remarkable here in the last couple of years. I'm waiting to see how long that's going to stick around before people start wanting their representative or senator to bring home the bacon, and then how do they handle it if they've been anti-bacon up until now?

CONAN: And if other people get some, and they don't, that's another problem. Clarence Page, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. PAGE: Thank you.

CONAN: Clarence Page, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. You can read his piece "O'Donnell was right" through a link at our website, npr.org/talk.

Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor and our Political Junkie. If you still haven't gotten your fill, he's always blogging away at npr.org/junkie. There, you can find a link to his election scorecard. And is there a ScuttleButton puzzle up?

RUDIN: Every Friday.

CONAN: Every Friday.

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