Atheists who defend the separation of church and state frequently encounter the complaint that the phrase "separation of church and state" doesn't appear in the Constitution. How do you respond to that?
An easy and obvious response is to note that the phrases "right to vote" and "right to a fair trial" also don't appear in the Constitution. So to be consistent, the conservative evangelical Christian (because that's pretty much always who is making the above argument) must either deny that such rights exist or must admit that it's legitimate to conclude that certain rights are implied by the text.
It would be nice to hope that they would go with the second option, but sometimes they go with the first: wholesale denial of any rights except those provided for by the narrowest, most literal understanding of only those words which appear in the Constitution.
Here's an example of what I'm talking about. In response to "It [church/state separation] exists to the same degree that a right to a fair trial exists. You can't deny one without denying the other," Brain Bonner responded:
Brian Bonner: I deny both exists in the U.S. Constitution
Brian Bonner: you have a right to a jury trial, trials R not "fair" they are adjudicated
Brian Bonner: No, you have a right to a trial as laid out in The Constitution, no interpretation is allowed, u can consider it fair or not
Brian Bonner: ppl wishing to treat the Constitution as something that can be re-interpreted instead of taking its LITERAL meaning as a doc
Brian Bonner: elections R laid out in The Constitution, how they R held is Left to The States, Constitution originally only dealt w/federal
Brian Bonner: You have a right under the Constitution to the what it states and nothing more
In the real world -- the world of normal adult reasoning -- Americans so indeed have a right to a fair trial even though the phrase "right to a fair trial" doesn't appear in the Constitution. The reason why is fairly simple: the rights which are specified in the Constitution simply wouldn't make any sense if it weren't for the goal of creating fair trials.
Creating trials that adhere to a narrow, literal interpretation of the words but which are still unfair would not just be immoral, but contrary to the entire point of the relevant provisions of the Constitution. Rejecting this makes a person look an awful lot like a chid who told to "go to bed," but who sets up to play in bed and protests "you didn't tell me I had to sleep, only that I had to go to the bed!"
There is always nuance to language because a certain amount of ambiguity is not only built in, but even necessary. There are always unspoken premises or assumptions, and you don't need to be an adult to recognize that they exist. In the above example, we all know that the child knows better but is deliberately choosing the narrowest, most literal understanding of the words for the sake of personal gain.
Well, I think the same is true of conservative and fundamentalist Christians who expect anyone else to agree that we don't have a right to a fair trial merely because those particular words are absent. Human language, thinking, and law don't work that way. It's nothing more than a childish, immature attempt to get one's way when one knows that there's no substantive, honest way to achieve that.
As another example, consider Brian Bonner's attempt to argue that government employees retain unlimited First Amendment rights, even when they happen to be acting as officers or representatives of the state:
Brian Bonner: Free expression of religion does not end when an individual enters govt or govt buildings
Brian Bonner: There are no limits in The First Amendment
Brian Bonner: So a Govt employee gives up the right to freely express religious/spiritual beiefs in ur world? Not The Constitutional Republic
Brian Bonner: An employer is not the fed govt
Everyone knows that employers can limit what employees can say to customers, clients, or the general public. It's unlikely you'd ever find a conservative, evangelical Christian who denies this, given the extent to which many of them also defend unrestrained corporate and employer rights -- especially when they are the employer. This doesn't leave Bonner with many options, thus his decision to deny that the government is an "employer."
Yes, he actually expects others to believe that people who are paid by the government to do some specified job aren't being "employed" and therefore can't be limited even as much as other "employees" in the nation. Not even narrow, literal, and childish interpretations of the law can rescue such a position. But it's all we can sometimes expect because for some people, rationalizing preferred positions is all that matters.