The Internet was all abuzz last week with Republican Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell’s “surprise” that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides for the separation of church and state. Bloggers (particularly on the left) and even some mainstream pundits were quick to point to her “gaffe” as evidence that O’Donnell is nothing more than a Palin-lite candidate, schooled more in the way of preening for the camera than for tackling serious policy questions.
But maybe we should stop snarking in our lattes for a moment here, because while O’Donnell has plenty to pick apart in terms of her political platform, her statements at Widener were no mistake.
O’Donnell’s statements, and similar ones made by other Tea Party candidates are signals, constitutional codes, of policy positions that, if elected, she intends to advocate. In this instance she’s referring to the well-worn far-right meme that while the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, it does not guarantee a wall between church and state.
Of course that means that for O’Donnell, and her supporters, the government is free to, and indeed should, legislate from a Judeo-Christian bias. It means that churches should be allowed to politick from the pulpit free from interference. It means that laws discriminating against people on the basis of sexual orientation would pass constitutional muster, and it means that Roe v. Wade is on the ropes.
The First Amendment is not the only issue where this kind of constitutional double-speak shows up. Former NFL offensive tackle and current New Jersey congressional candidate Jon Runyan recently identified the Dred Scott decision as the most recent Supreme Court decision he disagreed with. Now, the 1857 decision that embraced slavery seems like low-hanging fruit. I mean, in 2010 who isn’t opposed to slavery and who would actually argue that the decision was a good one? Much like O’Donnell, Runyan was quickly dismissed as another political lightweight who perhaps suffered one too many head injuries during his NFL days.
Again, not so fast.
The Dred Scott reference is code for abortion rights. Anti-abortion advocates routinely point to the reasoning of the decision as the basis for their “fetal rights” or “personhood” movement. In both cases, so the reasoning goes, the Court stripped the rights from a class of human beings, reducing them to nothing more than the property of others. To not like Dred Scott is to not like Roe v. Wade.
There’s plenty of bad logic, not to mention constitutional misunderstanding going on by both O’Donnell and Runyan. But those of us on the left would be far better served attacking the arguments head-on, rather than assuming idiocy from these candidates. The danger that both O’Donnell’s position and Runyan’s position represents is a beauty in simplicity and, given the overall dumbing down of the American public on all things constitutional, one that would find an easy audience.
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