We watched the video of Christine O'Donnell and Chris Coons, blathering on about creationism and the First Amendment. After she asks "where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state," the audio track records what sounds less like "an audible gasp" than an explosion of raucous laughter. And, after a momentary confusion, O'Donnell give a victorious smile -- as though, simply by stimulating the crowd, she has won something.
And let's be clear: she hasn't. The debate was held at Widener Law School, and attended largely by law students and law professors. O'Donnell's apparent confusion about an elementary point of constitutional law served to make her look ridiculous.
But note that we did write "apparent" confusion. Later in the debate, O'Donnell recovered herself enough to make explicit what was almost certainly her underlying claim all along: that because the words "separation of church and state" don't occur in it, the First Amendment should be read as a restriction upon Congress alone, and not upon states or, we suppose, counties. In other words, if a local school board wants to teach Creationism, or the state of Idaho wants to establish Neopaganism as its official religion, O'Donnell sees no constitutional problem with this.
We also heard one of the moderators ask whether the candidates supported repeal of a few other amendments to the US Constitution -- those governing citizenship, the income tax, and the election of senators. Coons said "No;" O'Donnell said many things, among which "no" could also be heard if one listened very closely.
But wait a second, we thought. The election of senators? The Seventeenth Amendment? Who cares about that?
Then we remembered a peculiar conversation, a couple of summers back, with one of our relatives, whom we shall simply call Bob. This Bob is from the part of the family that holds very closely to its political opinions, and feels that family reunions are just the right time to share. Lamentably, the opinions in question are often offensive both to common sense and other family members. A lively argument typically follows, followed by five or six years of not speaking to each other.
So there we were by the pool, sipping our cider, when Bob announced (a propos of nearly nothing) that the state legislatures should be free to select US senators however they pleased, be it by election or otherwise, "just as it says in the Constitution." When Father A. raised a timid eyebrow, Bob repeated himself, adding proudly, "That's right. I'm a Constitutionalist."
Now, if you look the word up in a dictionary, you will find constitutionalist defined rather straightforwardly as somebody who believes in constitutional rule. But Bob seemed to be using it in an idiosyncratic sense, as somebody who liked the US Constitution as originally written.
Naturally, then, we asked him the logical follow-up question: "So, the right to vote? White male land-owners only?" This made him surprisingly angry, and he accused us of putting words into his mouth, "just like all liberals." Whatever that even means.
"You see," Bob said huffily, "the Constitution itself allows for this little thing called amendments. Maybe you've heard of them."
We had, of course. The seventeenth, for example. But at this point, we deemed it wisest to move on to some less emotional topic. (If memory serves, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, secret prisons, and the torture of prisoners by US service personnel). But the initial conversation has remained with us, a little mnemonic earworm. For reasons that we don't really understand, our relation feels that the purity of American constitutional government requires the repeal of the 17th Amendment.
And he's not alone. Apparently, there is a more-or-less organized movement, begun by former senator Zell Miller and which has since gained momentum in Tea Party circles, claiming that the popular election of senators is a form of big-government overreach, and denies the states their rights under a federal system.
Do we need to mention that "states' rights" has long been a principle treasured by people who would like to repeal other useful amendments, such as the 13th and 15th? Their argument, when you cut through the blather, goes like this: "I'm not saying slavery is a good thing, mind you. Don't accuse me of that. I'm saying the decision to abolish it has to be made by the states, not some Big Daddy federal government." (If you don't believe this can be real, dig into groups like the neo-Confederate League of the South and Baylor journalism professor Bill Murchison.)
Now, we doubt sincerely that our relation Bob is part of this crowd. We have no reason to believe that Ms. O'Connell is, either. Yet they are both part of another crowd, more moderate and humane, which nonetheless shares its impulses and rhetoric with the scariest phalanx in America's political life.