Video: O’Donnell vs. Coons on the separation of church and state

512 comments and counting in the Headlines thread. I guess you guys want to talk about this, huh?

She first mentions church and state at around 2:50 of the clip but the key exchange starts at around 5:30. When I first read the AP story on this, I had the same reaction as Ramesh Ponnuru and Ace — namely, that she was only pointing out that the phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the Constitution. And in fact, that’s how her campaign played it afterwards:

“In this morning’s WDEL debate, Christine O’Donnell was not questioning the concept of separation of church and state as subsequently established by the courts,” said campaign manager Matt Moran. “She simply made the point that the phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution.”

As you’ll see, even Coons acknowledges in his answer that separation is a concept developed by courts as part of its Establishment Clause jurisprudence, not something that appears in the constitutional text. (See also “right of privacy.”) The thing is, the exchange didn’t end there:

On the issue of whether creationism should be taught in public schools, a highly skeptical O’Donnell questioned Coon’s assertion that the First Amendment calls for the separation of church and state.

“The First Amendment does?” O’Donnell asked during the Tuesday morning debate. “Let me just clarify: You’re telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?”

Coons responded by quoting the relevant text: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

“That’s in the First Amendment?” a still skeptical O’Donnell replied smiling, as laughter could be heard from the crowd.

That part comes at around 7:10. He recites, or rather closely paraphrases, the Establishment Clause — not the doctrine of separation of church and state — and she seems surprised at his assertion that that appears in the First Amendment. Says Peter Wehner at Commentary, “Asking candidates for the United States Senate to be familiar with one of the magnificent achievements of the American founding doesn’t strike me as an overly burdensome requirement.” Yeah, especially since the crux of her “I’m you” messaging is to get people to identify with her. An undecided voter who sees this and thinks “I know the Establishment Clause but she doesn’t?” may well conclude that “she’s not me” and opt for condescending Harry Reid pet Chris Coons instead. And of course, since her only shot at the upset is an overwhelming turnout advantage among Republicans, anything she says or does to wake up the liberal base in Delaware makes things that much tougher for her. Which, of course, is why this incident is getting saturation coverage right now: “Theocracy” hysteria is a great way to get progressives down to the polls. As Ace says, no matter what you think about separation of church and state, if a candidate’s going to play with this particular book of political matches, you have to be a lot more careful than this.

Sad to say, this wasn’t the only constitutional flub at the debate. As the boss emeritus notes, alleged genius Coons couldn’t remember all five freedoms protected by the First Amendment and O’Donnell couldn’t remember what’s in the Fourteenth and Sixteenth Amendments. (That comes at around 3:30 of the clip.) The one thing they did agree on, though: Rent is too damn high.