MOMENTS after the Wall Street Journal issued earlier this week an op-ed piece by the editor of the Sun calling for a debate on the constitution, one of our favourite readers sent an email asking whether we felt any of the candidates had read the constitution. We sent back a note saying that we were certain Congresswoman Bachmann had read it. Last night at the debate the Minnesotan gave proof that not only does she know her constitution but she knows her history. The moment came when she answered a question about the separation of church and state. It was one of the highlights of a wonderful debate.
Mrs Bachmann went straight to Thomas Jefferson, who came up with the line about the wall of separation. She noted that it was contained in a letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists. “Believing with you,” Jefferson wrote, “that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Jefferson, who wrote his letter in 1802, was referring to the First Amendment. When he wrote of Americans declaring that “their legislature” would make no law respecting an establishment of religion, Mrs Bachmann pointed out, he was referring to the national legislature, the Congress. He was not referring to the states. One of the reasons we know this is that at the time Jefferson wrote the Danbury Baptists a number of the states still had established religions. One of the things the First Amendment did was prohibit the federal government from disestablishing state churches.
This was a fear of the state ratifying conventions, according to the work of a scholar named Joseph Snee. He wrote that the state conventions debating whether to ratify the constitution “feared, not only federal interference with individual religious freedom, but also federal interference with state establishments or quasi-establishments then existing”. This is why the writers of the constitution phrased the First Amendment precisely the way they did — Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Mrs. Bachmann made the point brilliantly.…Mrs Bachmann is often set down as a know-nothing. She gave us last night a glimpse of a woman who knows a lot. And what she knows is important. There is a campaign against religion in this country that is troubling to millions of Americans. It is as troubling as the campaign many fear of some religions seeking to impose themselves in public institutions. …