Can Dobson Out-Fruitcake Obama on the Constitution?
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jun 24, 2008 at 12:27:00 AM EST
I think he can.

James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, says the Barack Obama distorts the Bible and has a "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution."

This according to the Associated Press, which was provided a copy of Dobson's pretaped remarks that will air on Tuesday on his nationally syndicated radio program.

Dobson's colorful attack on Senator Obama, who taught constitutional law for twelve years at the University of Chicago, invites examination of Mr. Dobson's views on the Constitution -- something I have written about from time-to-time.

A few years ago, Dobson was a fervent support of Roy Moore, who was ousted from his position of chief judge of the Alabama Supreme Court for defying a federal court order to remove the religious monument to the ten commandments he had installed in state courthouse.

I wrote about this in an op-ed in The Christian Science Monitor at the time:

At a rally on the courthouse steps, James Dobson said:

"I checked yesterday with my research team," Dr. Dobson announced. "There are only two references to religion in the Constitution." The first, from the preamble, he said, refers to securing "the blessings of liberty," which, he asserted, "came from God" (although there is nothing in the document to support that view.) The other was the First Amendment's establishment clause that, he said, "has given such occasion for mischief by the Supreme Court."

However, Dobson's researchers missed - or ignored - Article Six of the Constitution. That's the one barring religious tests for public office and set in motion disestablishment of the Christian churches that had served as arbiters of colonial citizenship and government for 150 years.

Mainstream historian Gary Wills writes that the framers' major innovation was "disestablishment."  

In a November 2006 interview with Larry King, Dobson indulged in some well debunked revisionist history. I wrote about this at the time. Dobson claimed that there is no such thing as separation of church and state.  The historical record clearly shows that while it is true that the phrase separation of church and state is not found in the constitution or the first Amendment, the phrase was in wide use among leading thinkers at the time, and that Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists was an effort by Jefferson to explain his understanding of the meaning of the First Amendment. That is part of the reason why the Supreme Court has used the phrase since at least 1878 to explain the meaning of the First Amendment, and why it has become a standard part of our understanding of the meaning of the Constitution.


KING: But we have a separation of church and state.

    DOBSON: Beg your pardon?

    KING: We have a separation of church and state.

    DOBSON: Who says?

    KING: You don't believe in separation of church and state?

    DOBSON: Not the way you mean it. The separation of church and state is not in the Constitution. No, it's not. That is not in the Constitution. That was...

    KING: It's in the Bill of Rights.

    DOBSON: It's not in the Bill of Rights. It's not anywhere in a foundational document. The only place where the so-called "wall of separation" was mentioned was in a letter written by Jefferson to a friend. That's the only place. It has been picked up and made to be something it was never intended to be.

    What it has become is that the government is protected from the church, instead of the other way around, which is that church was designed to be protected from the government.

    KING: I'm going to check my history.

If King did his homework, he would find whatever any honest researcher finds in response such claims about church state separation. Last year I published a long essay in The Public Eye magazine, titled History is Powerful: Why the Christian Right Distorts History and Why it Matters, and in it, I quoted a classic scholarly debunking by Brent Walker of Dobson's claim, as articulated by Christian historical revisionist, David Barton:  

Of course, neither the words "church state separation" nor "wall of separation" appear in the Constitution. That does not mean Barton's position is correct. The Constitution does not specifically mention "separation of powers" or "the right to a fair trial" either, but who would deny the Constitutional status of those concepts? "Church-state separation" is a metaphor for what certainly was and is the spirit of the First Amendment's religion clauses - government is to be neutral toward religion to the end of ensuring religious liberty.

Barton mentions church-state separation as flowing from Thomas Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association. He asserts that later in the letter Jefferson made it clear that he wanted only a "one directional wall" to prevent the government from harming religion, not to prevent religion from capturing the government.

A reading of the entire letter belies any suggestion that Thomas Jefferson thought it was "one directional." There is absolutely nothing in the letter even to hint that that is the case.

Dobson and Obama can disagree all they want about the proper interpretation of the Bible. But Barack Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for twelve years, while James Dobson has a long record of issuing utterly spurious declarations about the constitution with complete conviction.

We both criticize Obama's interpretation of the Constitution, albeit on different grounds.  I am mortified that a constitutional scholar like Obama so firmly ignores the 14th amendment and advocates for separate but equal institutions for LGBT people.  It is dishonest in the extreme, and he should be embarrassed to claim civil rights lawyer & constitutional scholar creds on the one hand, while undermining the 14th amendment with his words and stances.  After Bush, it doesn't please me one bit to see another candidate for president so brazenly ignoring the constitution.

by Laurel on Tue Jun 24, 2008 at 12:46:34 AM EST
The title of my comment says it all.  Obama probably believes that he can't get elected if he takes too firm a stand on that issue.

Despite that he was still the best of the three main candidates.  Hillary Clinton was embarrassingly nervous even to mention gay people during the primary season.

That doesn't mean we should give Obama a free pass, but America is still a very conservative country and it will be another decade or more before LGBT issues are no longer controversial.   (I've mentioned before that the leader of the Conservative Party in Britain recently publicly congratulated a gay member of his party and Member of Parliament on getting hitched.  A decade or two ago that would have been political suicide.  So there is hope for America yet.)

by tacitus on Tue Jun 24, 2008 at 11:07:26 AM EST

but he should be talking up equality under the law and expanding civil rights.  cuz he's mr. civil rights attorney, right?  and he REALLY needs to stop using the language of the religious right (one man, one woman).  he is seriously undermining our effort to keep our toe hold on equality in CA.  i'm sure if he tried or cared, he could find a way to rephrase his position that would still be against marriage but supportive of expanding rights, and not use the rhetoric of the haters.

While on the campaign trail, Jimmy Carter famously opposed the CA initiative that would have banned gay people from teaching.  And he won, at a time when gays had almost no rights.  Obama can do the right thing and win.  If he wants to.

by Laurel on Tue Jun 24, 2008 at 03:03:20 PM EST

But there is a long history of timidity when it comes to Democrats taking a stand on issues over the past few decades.  I don't know how it happened, but the Republicans have usually found a way to put Democrats on the defensive.

From policies like universal healthcare to gays in the military to energy conservation, Democrats as a whole are on the correct side of the issue, and there is a yearning from Democrats for someone to stand up and take on these issues.  Yet somehow our politicians are cowed into silence for fear of the right wing pouncing on them and beating them up.

by tacitus on Tue Jun 24, 2008 at 10:30:30 PM EST

has set himself up for special scrutiny here because he has painted himself as a principled change agent, has talked up hope, etc.  if we keep letting candidates get away with being weak, we deserve what we get.  i'm not letting obama get away with it.  i'm calling him out on his spinelessness.  we all should.  otherwise we have no room to complain.

by Laurel on Wed Jun 25, 2008 at 12:54:31 PM EST

I didn't hear Dobson railing on about Obama's view of the Bible, but I did hear him talking for the umpteenth time about how the "Fairness Doctrine" was about to destroy conservative and religious talk radio.

He had Congressman Mike Pence on the show to talk about his bill which would ban the FCC from ever implementing it without further legislation.

It seems to me that this is just being thrown out there as more political red meat for the conservative base to scare up (as usual) more votes against the Democrats.  Yes, one or two Democrats have grumbled about how biased the media has become, especially on the radio, but there has been no concerted effort by anyone to put the Fairness Doctrine back into place.

Even the activists aren't talking about it much.  There is much more interest in doing something about the consolidation of the media outlets into just a few hands creating monopolies in many parts of the US.  

Anyway, I don't recall seeing much coverage here on this particular issue that the religious right have been hammering on about.  It could do with a good debunking if you have the time.

by tacitus on Tue Jun 24, 2008 at 11:17:50 AM EST

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