Blurring the Church and State Divide

Christine O'Donnell's and Ken Buck's recent declarations echo a chorus of conservatives

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"I disagree strongly with the concept of separation of church and state. It was not written into the Constitution," declared Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck in a GOP forum late last year. This view, just recently unearthed, further fueled a debate reignited last week when Christine O'Donnell coyly asked her opponent where the church-state separation could be found in the Constitution. At the time, O'Donnell's remarks were treated with derision from skeptics who argued she had no grasp of the Constitution's intent. Yet, the Delaware Senate candidate was technically right: those exact words aren't mentioned in the First Amendment. And fellow conservatives rallied behind her for raising a legitimate point about the role of religion in the public square.

As prominent conservatives (Sharron Angle and Sarah Palin have expressed similar notions) look to reexamine the role of religion in state affairs, a few pundits are asking whether this will take us down a slippery slope.

  • What Buck Advocates Is 'Dangerous' contends George Zornick at the liberal think-tank, ThinkProgress. He notes the opinions of two prominent Americans to bolster his case: "Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in a concurring opinion in 1984, the government is prohibited from 'making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community.' In 1801, Thomas Jefferson wrote that 'religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God,' and argued the Constitution required 'building a wall of separation between Church & State.'"
  • What Would Replace Church-State Separation? The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen tries to wrap his head around the "unhinged" Republicans' motivation for denouncing church-state separation. He asks "so what do Buck and his ilk have in store for us? A European-style official church? A theocracy along the lines of Saudi Arabia? Are conservatives who want the government to shrink also telling us they want the state to play a larger role in promoting and "helping" religious institutions? When the right denounces the American principles that have made us great, they stop being merely wrong, and start becoming even more dangerous."
  • Debate Is Spurred by Decisions to Limit School Prayer, Bible Reading in Public Schools  Nomi M. Stolzenberg, a USC law professor, aims to pinpoint the roots of the current debate in the Huffington Post. Religious conservatives have chafed at "a string of Supreme Court decisions banning school prayer and Bible reading in the nation's public schools and overturning time-release programs for religious instruction....Over the last half century, this political movement, comprising a broad cross-denominational coalition...has waged a campaign to overturn the liberal doctrine of strict separation between church and state and restore religion to the public schools and public square. According to this camp, there is no principle of separation between church and state in the Constitution, and the idea that there is is yet another liberal fallacy, an invention of liberal activist judges and the reviled Warren Court."
  • If Secular Government Mingles With Religion, the Religious Majority Comes Out on Top  Washington Post contributor Gustav Niebuhr details the consequences of the lines blurring between church and state. "Let's take Alabama, for example. A lot of people who live there are Baptists, maybe a majority. Do Baptist pastors (and which ones, by the way?) get to pick out the nativity scene for the state capitol's lawn?" The issue gets even thornier when the state is asked to "deal with the inevitable sectarian squabbles arising from within groups--ostensibly within the same faith category--that do not recognize each other as authentic." Although "advocates of non-separation" might respond by saying they want "all" religions honored, they don't understand that "there are a lot more than" considered on first glance.
  • O'Donnell, Buck and Angle Understand That the State Bars 'Establishment of Religion'  The "eternal dispute" is about "how far government should just keep its hands out of religion and vice versa," points out Clarence Page in a Chicago Tribune opinion column. "Separation of church and state has been argued endlessly precisely because no one can say for sure what the founders intended, no matter how much today's experts, with their widely varying amounts of expertise, think they know."
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