Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . — from the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
That’s for Christine O’Donnell.
"Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?" she asked last week, drawing gasps and astonished laughter from an audience of law school students.
Chris Coons, her Democratic opponent for a Delaware Senate seat, replied that in asking the question, O’Donnell showed "fundamental misunderstanding of what our Constitution is. . . . The First Amendment establishes the separation . . ."
O’Donnell wasn’t buying it. "The First Amendment does? . . . So you’re telling me that the separation of church and state, the phrase ‘separation of church and state,’ is found in the First Amendment?"
It was a bizarre exchange that permits but two conclusions. One, O’Donnell is frighteningly ignorant, particularly for a woman who claims constitutional expertise and aspires to the Senate. Or, two, assuming you buy her after-the-fact explanation (she was merely observing that the phrase "separation of church and state’’ is not in the First Amendment), she is terribly disingenuous.
After all, the framers’ intention to isolate church from state and vice versa is evident in the amendment’s wording, and is a matter of long-settled law besides. The phrase "freedom of expression’’ doesn’t appear in the First Amendment, either. Would O’Donnell question that right, too?
Maybe I shouldn’t ask.
While one is appalled by O’Donnell’s ignorance and/or disingenuousness, one is not surprised. The capacity to be surprised by her died long ago, victim of revelations that she once "dabbled’’ in witchcraft. And was the subject of an IRS lien. And said people with AIDS brought the disease upon themselves. And was sued for nonpayment by her college and mortgage company. And was cited eight times by the Federal Elections Commission. And thinks scientists have created mice with human brains.
That this woman is a major party candidate for national office, that she is among the brightest stars of a constellation of like-minded cranks — some of them already in office — tells you all you need to know about this moment in our political life. Welcome to the United States of Amnesia.
Somehow we have forgotten the lesson we spent most of the last decade learning at ruinous cost, that faith-based governance, foreign policy by gut instinct, choosing leaders on the basis of which one we’d most like to watch television with, simply does not work.
Some say this is a conservative revolution, but this is no conservatism Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater would have recognized. At least their ideology adhered to an interior logic. This ideology adheres to a perverse illogic which posits that the less you know, the more authentic you are. So what triumphs here is not conservatism but rather, mediocrity. The Know Nothings and Flat Earthers are ascendant.
But intellect matters. Knowledge is good. And what does it tell you that that point even needs to be made?
In a recent debate, O’Donnell was asked to name a modern Supreme Court decision to which she objects. "Oh, gosh," she said. "Give me a specific one, I’m sorry. . . . Right off the top of my head, I know that there are a lot, but I’ll put it up on my website, I promise you."
Some of us are reminded how candidate Bush kept calling Greeks "Grecians." Some of us remember how the electorate shrugged off that evidence of looming gaps in his basic knowledge because he had a folksy way. Some of us remember how that came out.
Others apparently don’t. Others are ready to travel that road again. It brings to mind an old saying: We get the leaders we deserve.
You and I better hope that’s not true.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.