When we think about the separation of church and state, we tend to worry about government becoming more like church. But maybe the real danger lies in churches becoming more like governments—by getting a piece of the state’s monopoly on violence, for instance. Yesterday, the Alabama state senate approved a bill to let Briarwood Presbyterian Church assemble its own police force. Briarwood police would be sworn officers with the same authority to carry firearms, issue citations and place people under arrest as, for example, university police. The difference is that they would be employed by a church. That’s tricky, since as police they would become expressions of state power. I’m using “tricky” here to avoid repeating the exact words of the ACLU of Alabama, whose executive director described the plan as “plainly unconstitutional.”
I assume that, by now, the numerical minority of you who did not send me links to Christine O’Donnell’s First Amendment gaffe yesterday have heard about it. In a debate with Chris Coons before, of all people, an audience of law students, the Delaware Senate candidate demanded to know “where in the Constitution” is the separation of church and state. After her opponent recited the establishment clause (pretty much from memory, although he missed a couple of words,) she remained incredulous, saying, “You’re telling me that’s in the First Amendment?” Newspaper accounts were beautiful, but they miss what is perhaps the best part: the four or so minutes after O’Donnell sticks Coons with her “where in the Constitution?” question but before she realizes it’s a gaffe. During that time, she smirks at the crowd, mugs during her opponent’s answers and generally acts like she’s just checkmated Vladimir Nabokov. It’s an almost physically painful study in dramatic irony, and it captures the essence of Christine O’Donnell.