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MSNBC "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" - Transcript

Interview

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STATE SEN. JAMIE RASKIN (D), MARYLAND: My pleasure. Happy to be with you.

UYGUR: Yes, great to have you here.

Chris Coons understated things, didn"t he? The First Amendment does not prohibit Congress from establishing religion, does not merely separate church and state. It says Congress shall not even make any law respecting an establishment of religion. What"s the difference there?

RASKIN: Well, that"s right. No part of a government can make any law respecting an establishment of religion and also the First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of every individual to choose his or her own religion without the state imposing another religious choice upon them.

So, you know, I guess, you know, the Republican candidate is right in this very narrow sense that the First Amendment doesn"t explicitly say that there"s a wall of separation between church and state. That was a phrase that Thomas Jefferson first used in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist. But what the conservatives want to say basically is anything that the government does with respect to religion is OK as long as they don"t literally establish a church. So, that would mean it"s OK to tax the taxpayers to give money to support particular religious dominations or religious activities or prayer in the schools, the kinds of things that they want to push.

And so, really, they"ve been attacking Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the founders of the Constitution who really did believe in a radical separation of church and state. That was the whole meaning of the First Amendment and really the most revolutionary thing about the American Constitution.

UYGUR: What would Thomas Jefferson know about the Constitution, anyway?

And by the way, she went further. She said, establishment of--that we cannot establish religion in the First Amendment, come on. So, she got it completely and utterly wrong.

But let"s go further here to the core of this here. How revolutionary an idea was that at the time when the Founding Fathers said we shall not have a state religion?

RASKIN: Well, and look, the glory of the American Constitution, you know, beyond the separation of powers which it appeared before in other places or due process, which it appeared before in other places was the radical break from centuries of fusion of church and state in Europe. And this history of Holy Wars, the Catholics fighting the Protestants, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witchcraft trials, the rack and the screws and torture of people because of their religious views.

The American Enlightenment revolutionaries wanted to break from that violent history of religious conflict which they were fleeing in Europe, and so wrote into the First Amendment these incredible principles that there will be no establishment of religion here and every person would be guaranteed a liberty of conscience to make his or her own choices to worship how he or she pleases or not at all, as many of the founders indeed chose not to do. Many of them were, you know, described as heretics and deists and infidels, and Thomas Jefferson was, you know, considered a radical and Jacobin because of his skepticism towards organized religion.

And in the truth, the Constitution doesn"t mention the word God. Article VI says there should be no religious test for public office. And our founders wanted to create a society that was safe for religion and for people to practice religion freely. But that meant no religion could come to dominate government and oppress everybody else.

UYGUR: Jamie, real quick. I mean, this is not a matter of dispute, is it? I mean, every once in a while you"ll see these conservatives say, oh, you know, some of the Founding Fathers really believed in God and hence, we must be right. I mean, is this something that"s disputed in law, in legal circles? Or is it something that"s absolutely clear, these guys, the Founding Fathers clearly said in the Constitution and meant we shall not establish a religion and that there should be a separation of church and state?

RASKIN: I mean, if you ask me, it"s perfectly clear. Now, you know, I got to say, Justice Thomas, for example, takes a very pinched view of the Establishment Clause where he basically says not only does it mean only that you can"t establish a religion the way that the Anglican Church is established. You know, we have a Church of England. But only Congress cannot establish the church.

There are those who take the position--and I think Justice Thomas is still one of them--who believe that it"s OK for states to establish their own churches. That is the mainstream view. That"s not the pervasive view.

But, you know, the Republican nominee in Delaware does speak for a right wing position which is that the whole wall of separation understanding of the Constitution, which goes back to the Founders, is something that"s been imposed by Thomas Jefferson and Madison and by other radical Jacobins.

UYGUR: Right.

RASKIN: So, you know, they"re basically still fighting a civil conflict that goes back to the beginning of the American republic and they"re contesting what the values of the country are. But what"s made us a great country, if you think about us versus, you know, the people that we"re dealing with in the Islamic world, is that we don"t believe in theocracy. We don"t believe in an imposition of a religion where everybody"s got to follow what the state is saying.

UYGUR: At least we brought some people together. Conservative right wingers here maybe agree with the conservative government of Saudi Arabia. There"s some positive out of this.

RASKIN: Well, there"s a lot of theocracy on the march all around the world.

UYGUR: Oh, unfortunately, there is. Jamie Raskin, professor of constitutional law at American University--thank you so much for your time tonight.

RASKIN: Pleasure"s mine.

UYGUR: Now, let"s turn to MSNBC political analyst Howard Fineman, senior political editor for "Huffington Post" as well.

Good evening, Howard.

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