Senator O’Donnell?

My guess is that the Tea Party’s great victory in Delaware — in nominating Christine O’Donnell for the Senate — will turn out to be a rather substantial disaster for the movement. There are some serious issues that the T.P. movement is raising — but O’Donnell’s candidacy merely feeds suspicions that the movement is fed by ignorant, know-nothing Yahooism.

In the latest debate between O’Donnell and her rival, Chris Coons, there was this exchange (reported here):

After scolding Coons for his lack of knowledge of constitutional law for stating that intelligent design should not be taught in public schools . . . O’Donnell challenged her rival on his assertion that the U.S. Constitution creates a distinct separation between church and state.

“Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?” O’Donnell asked. Upon hearing her words, the audience in the room burst into laughter.

It was not, alas, just a momentary gaffe — O’Donnell made it clear, later on, that she had never read the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Later in the proceedings, . . . Coons returned the conversation to the question of the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

“I absolutely oppose the widespread proposals by tea party candidates for us to repeal the 14th, 16th or 17th amendments.” Coons said. “I also think you just heard, in the answers from my opponent, and in her attempt at saying ‘where is the separation of church and state in the constitution’ reveals her fundamental misunderstanding of what our Constitution is, how it is amended and how it evolved. The First Amendment establishes the separation, the fact that the federal government shall not establish any religion, and decisional law by the Supreme Court over many, many decades –”

O’ Donnell then interrupted. “The First Amendment does?” she asked, skeptically.

Coons continued his explanation, and O’Donnell interrupted again. “So you’re telling me that the separation of church and state — the phrase ‘separation of church and state — is found in the First Amendment?”

Coons went on to cite cases the Supreme Court had decided that backed up the position of a wall between church and state.

“Let me just clarify,” O’Donnell pressed. “You’re telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?”

“The government shall make no establishment of religion,” Coons said, summarizing the gist of the specific words in the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

“That’s in the First Amendment?” O’Donnell asked again,

For someone ostensibly interested, as she put it, in returning this country to the “principles of the Founders on which our country is based,” this is beyond appalling. Jefferson, among many others, is turning over in his grave.

The video is here, if you want to see for yourself.

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The buzz on the Net about this is, predictably, scathing (as it should be); here’s my favorite, from
New York Magazine’s Daily Intel :

For someone hoping to serve in the Senate of the United States, saying “You’re telling me that [the establishment clause is] in the First Amendment?” is like a prospective astronaut saying, “You’re telling me we can’t breathe in space?” It’s like a heart surgeon walking into the operating room and asking, “You’re telling me there are four chambers in the pumpy thing?” And so on.

Those of us who have for many years considered ourselves “libertarians” recognize the problem: we have important, intellectually defensible positions on critical issues, but somehow the public face of the movement is led by people who end up sounding like Christine O’Donnell.

[UPDATE: A couple of responses to some of the comments. First, a number of you suggest that O’Donnell was making the subtle (and eminently defensible) point that the First Amendment doesn’t use the term “separation of church and state” (true enough), and that its actual language does not compel the reading that the Supreme Court has given to it (also true).

But that’s wishful thinking, I’m afraid. I say that for two reasons. First, the third time she asks the question “That’s in the First Amendment??” is in response to Coons’ statement that the First Amendment states “”The government shall make no establishment of religion,” which is pretty much a verbatim account of what it actually says. To ask “That’s in the First Amendment?” is not to make a subtle point – it is to demonstrate that you do not know what it actually says. Second, if you listen to the audio, you’ll realize that she also doesn’t know what’s in the Fourteenth Amendment, either — she needs the moderator to explain it to her. It seems to me the most parsimonious explanation of all this is not that she is making a subtle argument, but that she has never, ever, read the Constitution – or if she has, she does not remember what is in it.

Now, a number of you take the position that that doesn’t really matter too much — at least her heart is in the right place and all that. Sorry, but I can’t agree with you on that one. A Senator’s obligation — her most important obligation — is to “support and defend” the Constitution and to “bear true faith and allegiance” to it. I don’t see how anyone can fulfill that obligation without knowing what the document actually says.