Here’s the hullabaloo: The Democratic and Republican candidates for Senate in Delaware answered audience questions at a law school. At one point, Republican Christine O’Donnell challenged Democrat Chris Coons: “Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?” This question prompted surprise from the audience and scrutiny from the media.
Coons responded, “The First Amendment establishes a separation.”
O’Donnell countered with “The First Amendment does? … So you’re telling me that the separation of church and state, the phrase ‘separation of church and state,’ is in the First Amendment?”
Reaction to these remarks reflects two possible interpretations:
- O’Donnell means that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not literally in the Constitution.
- O’Donnell wasn’t careful in her choice of words.
This semantic dilemma pinpoints a few words that may help you understand this election season.
If O’Donnell intended to point out that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not literally in the Constitution, then her statement is an example of originalism, “the belief that the United States Constitution should be interpreted in the way the authors originally intended it.” Her campaign issued a statement supporting an originalist intent for the remarks.
(In the spirit of precise definitions, do you really know the story behind why the actual Boston Tea Party protestors dumped tea in Boston Harbor? Explore the meaning of “Tea Party,” here.)
In the U.S., originalism (or strict constructionism) has become associated with political conservatives. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is a well-known proponent of this view. When a politician rails against “activist judges” who “legislate from the bench,” you can surmise he or she is informed by an originalist stance.
Here’s the text of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Many scholars (and judges) interpret this famous text to imply a separation of religion and government. If you read the amendment literally however, you may beg to differ. The root of “literal” is the Latin litteralis, “of or belonging to letters or writing.” Traditionally, a literal reading refers to what a text (often the Bible) says exactly, rather than its mystical or allegorical significance.