Christine O'Donnell's latest face-plant—asking "Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?"—was not just cringe-inducing. It was revealing and part of a growing chorus from social conservative populist candidates running under the Tea Party banner this year.
O'Donnell's comments were muted compared to her fellow Delaware conservative Glen Urquhart, who earlier this year offered supporters of his congressional campaign a detailed explanation of how the separation of church and state was not in the Constitution but rooted in Nazi propaganda.
"Do you know, where does this phrase 'separation of church and state' come from?" Urquhart asked in a campaign speech caught on tape. "It was not in Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists... The exact phrase 'separation of Church and State' came out of Adolph Hitler's mouth, that's where it comes from. So the next time your liberal friends talk about the separation of Church and State ask them why they're Nazis."
Sharron Angle has offered a similar riff, telling Jon Ralston of the Las Vegas Sun, "The tenet of the separation of church and state is an unconstitutional doctrine."
When Ralston replied, "the separation of church and state arises out of the Constitution," Angle cut him off. "No it doesn't, Jon," she said. "Thomas Jefferson was actually addressing a church and telling them through his address that there had been a wall of separation put up to protect the church from being taken over by a state religion, and that's what they meant. They didn't think they couldn't bring their values to the political forum, and it didn't mean that people with religious beliefs shouldn't have that freedom."
These arguments follow a line of revisionist reasoning that according to the Daily Beast's Election Oracle have gained online currency surrounding Tea Party-backed campaigns in Nevada, Delaware, Colorado, Kentucky, and House races in Delaware and the 6th district of Minnesota, where Michele Bachmann is currently polling ahead of challenger Tarryl Clark. In these districts, about 3 percent of the online chatter surrounds this matter which had seemingly been settled centuries ago.
Earlier this year, Bachmann proposed that Congress repeal the ban that prevents churches and other tax-exempt organizations from officially endorsing candidates, arguing that it would "give Christians back their first amendment rights to free speech in the church." Her fellow Minnesota conservative, Dan Severson, the GOP nominee for Secretary of State, dismissed the separation of church and state in an interview days before O'Donnell spoke, saying, "Quite often you hear people say, 'What about separation of church and state?' There is no such thing…I mean it just does not exist, and it does not exist in America for a purpose, because we are a Christian nation."
These comments go well beyond common sense centrist beliefs that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. Perhaps not coincidentally, they echo arguments put forward David Barton, the founder of Wallbuilders, a controversial evangelical group often championed by Glenn Beck. Barton published a book titled "Myth of Separation," and the thesis was reiterated in this online essay. Members of the Constitution Party, which is running Tom Tancredo for Governor of Colorado, have also advanced these claims. More recently, an author and speaker on the Tea Party circuit, Rick Scarborough, who was featured at both February's National Tea Party Convention in Nashville and at WorldNet Daily's Taking America Back conference in September. Scarborough sells pamphlets with titles like "In Defense of Mixing Church and State."
In his book "Liberalism Kills Kids"—which I couldn't resist buying at the National Tea Party Convention—he offers a mini-treatise on "the Myth of Separation of Church and State" that follows the lines parroted by Angle and Urquhart, that Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association was private and misappropriated in the Supreme Court decision on school busing, Emerson v. Board of Education. This is wedged between chapters that discuss how "God's Patience Must Not Be Confused with Tolerance," "Homosexuals are Not Gay" and "The Undeniable War Against Christianity."
A line of revisionist reasoning has gained currency surrounding Tea Party-backed campaigns in Nevada, Delaware, Colorado, Kentucky, and House races in Delaware and Minnesota.
This troubling trend matters at this stage of the election because it again points to the contradictions between the libertarian rhetoric that the Tea Party has used to recruit supporters and the social conservative populist crowd that is trying to ride the Tea Party wave into power. It is a fault line reflected in the fact that the Tea Party caucus in congress is not populated by serious fiscal conservative leaders like Paul Ryan and Jeff Flake, but by social conservative like Michele Bachmann and seven of the 12 co-sponsors of the Birther Bill. Like that fact that five Tea Party backed Senate candidates oppose abortion even in the case of rape and incest, this shifting standard on separation of church and state represents a clear challenge to the idea of small government and individual freedom that proponents profess. These ideological fault lines will rupture eventually, and they should be recognized now.
It's worth saying simply: these candidates do not believe in separation of church and state as it is commonly understood by the vast majority of Americans. They believe that concept is essentially a myth propagated by those they might call 'secular socialists.' It is a contradiction that libertarians cannot afford to ignore, and it undercuts these candidates' claims to represent and respect the constitutional tradition. It is evidence of the Tea Party being used by some social conservatives as a Trojan horse.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.