Image credit: Gage Skidmore
In February, Lawrence O'Donnell coined what is already one of the more insightful maxims of American politics, which is, "If you ever want to search for the worst speeches given by a modern president, begin with the National Prayer Breakfast." Deeming it "the worst speech" President Obama has given, O'Donnell slammed the president's address at this year's gathering, saying, "It was full of hollow pandering from start to finish, as politicians’ speeches to religious groups always are."
As Rand Paul showed us recently, this principle can be applied more generally to any address by any politician to any "prayer breakfast." On Thursday, the once libertarian hexagon amid a collection of Republican squares continued his descent into humdrum conservatism at a gathering of religious leaders in Washington, D.C. In the following clip, the Kentucky senator chums the 2016 waters with a fetid interpretation of the separation of church and state -- namely that the separation only goes one way:
"The First Amendment says keep government out of religion. It doesn’t say keep religion out of government... I open the Senate each Wednesday morning -- and we open it every day -- with a prayer. So you have prayer in government. Religion is part of our daily life and a part of our government. Always has been."
Paul has long-fancied himself a defender of the Constitution, but his depiction of the First Amendment here is wrong. For one thing, he's ignoring a century's worth of case law to the contrary. Time and again, the federal judiciary has limited religious interference in governmental affairs by broadly interpreting the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. When the courts prohibit public school officials from leading students in prayer, or strike down laws banning the teaching of evolution, or rule displays of the Ten Commandments on public property unconstitutional, they are keeping religion out of government in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment, which reads in part:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Since Paul is advocating an incredibly narrow interpretation of the Establishment Clause, he clearly needs a refresher on constitutional history. Although the founders and framers were hardly an ideological monolith, they were in general agreement on the necessity of distinct secular and religious spheres. The three most prominent views that influenced those who drafted the Bill of Rights, are here neatly summarized by Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe:
"[F]irst, the evangelical view (associated with Roger Williams) that 'worldly corruptions.... might consume the churches if sturdy fences against the wilderness were not maintained'; second, the Jeffersonian view that the church should be walled off from the state in order to safeguard secular interests (public and private) 'against ecclesiastical depredations and incursions'; and, third, the Madisonian view that religious and secular interests alike would be advanced best by diffusing and decentralizing power as to assure competition among sects rather than dominance by any one."
By and large, the Framers were as skeptical of organized religion as they were of government. As such, it's not a matter of whether the Constitution mandates that religion must stay out of government and vice versa, but rather the extent to which they are separated. And while Paul observes that the Senate begins each day with a prayer, that is the sort of thing that worried the Constitution's chief architect James Madison, who said for example that the appointment of congressional chaplains was "a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles."
Rand Paul has regularly accused President Obama and other public officials of violating the Constitution. However, considering he doesn't understand the very first line of the First Amendment, he may want to brush up on his constitutional law before trying to strike others down.