Much has been made in the media this week about Republican candidate Christine O’Donnell’s question during the Delaware House race debate earlier this week, “Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?”
O’Donnell is, in fact, correct that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the First Amendment, which states:
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.
As the discussion this week has revealed, legal scholars are not unified in their interpretation of the establishment clause contained in the First Amendment. Some argue that the wall of separation is there in spirit, if not in letter, while others support the contention that the wall is a later legal interpretation not intended by the Founders.
Whatever one’s political leanings, the resulting furor and debate over whether O’Donnell’s question is another sign of her incompetence presents a teachable moment for historians. We have the opportunity to provide historical context for current events, helping Americans understand the various ways that scholars interpret the Constitution and the role of religion in American political discourse.