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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rule One: Know Your Audience!

Back in the dim days of prehistory, I used to compete on my school's debate team. This means I got an early exposure to public speaking, which initially terrified me, and the experience helped me learn some important life skills. One of those skills, which serves me well as an instructor today, is simply: know your audience. The same speech, pitched the same way, at two different audiences can have wildly varying results. So, make sure you know whom you're addressing before you bust out a given set of talking points.

Fortunately for all of us, however, our old friend U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell seems never to have learned this lesson as she proceeds to ask- in front of an audience drawn from a law school- where in the U.S. constitution one can find the separation of church and state. And what's more, we have it on film:

Or, to quote an article about the incident:

In a debate at the Widener University Law School, Ms. O’Donnell interrupted her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, as he argued that the Constitution does not allow public schools to teach religious doctrine.

“Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” Ms. O’Donnell asked him, according to audio posted on the Web site of WDEL 1150 AM radio, which co-sponsored the debate.

The audience at the law school can be heard breaking out in laughter. But Ms. O’Donnell refuses to be dissuaded and pushes forward.

“Let me just clarify,” she says. “You are telling me that the separation of church and state is in the First Amendment?”

When Mr. Coons offers a shorthand of the relevant section, saying, “government shall make no establishment of religion,” Ms. O’Donnell replies, “That’s in the First Amendment?”

If you want to see it yourself without suffering through the entire video (which is, by the way, very funny in its own right) check it out at around 2:50 and 7:05 and you'll see what I mean.

Now, as the article observes, there is genuine debate about the exact meaning of the establishment clause. The first amendment, in its entirety, reads:

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.

The relevant part for this discussion is, therefore, the bit saying that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," and the reasons for debate are many. For example, does the first amendment mean that state governments can make such laws since the first amendment only specifies that Congress itself cannot? What does "establishment of religion" mean? Just declaring a state church? Promoting a specific religion? Promoting religion in general? And what does "free exercise" mean? Can people sacrifice chickens or smoke hallucinogens as part of their ceremonies? In short, there are actually quite a number of potential legal questions surrounding both what the founders meant by the first amendment, as well as what is most consonant with the spirit of the Constitution. Nevertheless, however, while the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the constitution,* the existence of a clause in the constitution that has the explicit purpose of keeping government out of the religion business, and vice versa, is pretty much beyond dispute.

And thus I argue that, generally speaking, suggesting that clauses providing for the separation of church and state do not appear in the constitution when sitting before an audience composed of law students is about as big a rookie mistake as we could expect a speaker to make. Few moves could be more reliably counted on to inspire audience laughter.

But hey, I'll give her this: at least she's not a witch!

* The phrase actually derives from Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists of January 1, 1802. Needless to say this isn't a legal document, and thus conservatives are not incorrect to point out that it is therefore somewhat specious to base legal rulings on it. That said, conservatives have been known on more than one occasion to delve into the letters of the founding fathers in an effort to justify their positions, thus suggesting that Jefferson's views are relevant here. Also, the exact same argument pertains to the Declaration of Independence, which isn't a legal document at all but simply a letter to King George III of England.

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Blogger scripto said...

Correction: She says she's not a witch.

Friday, October 22, 2010 3:44:00 AM  

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