Democrats getting played: O’Donnell successfully shapes dialogue about First Amendment

October 19, 2010 by · 6 Comments 

In a post titled The glaringly simple formula for rightwing dominance of our national debate, I wrote:

There is a simple formula for rightwing dominance of our national debate, even when Democrats are in charge: move the conversation as extreme right as possible, then compromise toward the far right. Negotiation 101. And it’s completely lost on Democrats.

It’s no accident that in 21st century America, torture has been mainstreamed, climate denial has taken firm hold, book burning, racial dog whistles and brazen religious intolerance are part of our discourse and par for the course. This is how the right plays the game, using Limbaugh, Hannity, Fox, Drudge, blogs, chain emails, talk radio, etc. to shamelessly and defiantly drag the conversation as far right as possible.

Christine O’Donnell’s gaffe about the First Amendment is anything but a gaffe. It’s a successful reframing of the conversation about the separation of church and state, injecting a rightwing talking point into the national bloodstream:

O’Donnell is getting a massive amount of attention today because during a debate with Chris Coons, she asked: “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” But Sharron Angle said something very similar a couple months back and it got almost no national attention. During an interview with Jon Ralston, he confronted her over her 1995 statement that excluding religious schools from Federal funding is un-American and that the separation of church and state is an unconstitutional doctrine. Then this exchange ensued:

RALSTON: The separation of church and state arises out of the Constitution.

ANGLE: No it doesn’t, John.

RALSTON: Oh, it doesn’t? The Founding Fathers didn’t believe in the separation of church and state?

ANGLE: Thomas Jefferson has been misquoted, like I’ve been misquoted, out of context. Thomas Jefferson was actually addressing a church and telling them through his address that there had been a wall of separation put up between the church and the state precisely to protect the church from being taken over by a state religion. That’s what they meant by that. They didn’t mean we couldn’t bring our values to the political forum.

More from Candace Chellew-Hodge:

After watching the video, I don’t think O’Donnell was surprised in the least by the contents of the First Amendment, but was instead sending a signal to her right-wing base. Her facial expression is a dead giveaway. She raises her eyebrows, widens her eyes, slowly nods her head, and turns her mouth down into a “hmmm” expression. It’s the same expression my partner gives me when I’ve said something completely stupid or ridiculous.

Instead of being mystified that perhaps the First Amendment would say something about religion, I believe O’Donnell was simply signaling to her base that she tows the well-worn right-wing line that while the First Amendment may guarantee freedom of religion, it does not create a wall of separation between church and state. That phrase, of course, is not in the Constitution, but was used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.

Her expression and the knowing nod showed that she thought Coons was the idiot for thinking that the language of the First Amendment automatically grants “separation of church and state.” The religious right has long propagandized that such a separation was never intended by the framers of the Constitution and has only been affirmed by “activist judges” throughout the centuries. Bryan Fischer at the American Family Association has even equated the separation of church and state as being “straight from the mind of Hitler

Democrats should see this for what it is: another successful attempt to move the national discourse into fringe rightwing territory. Here’s the clip: