LIMBAUGH PLAYS CONSTITUTIONAL SCHOLAR…. The significance of Christine O’Donnell’s ignorance about the separation of church and state goes beyond just pointing and laughing. There’s a striking push this year among right-wing candidates to attack constitutional principles — all the while, running as “constitutional conservatives” — an assault that is likely to continue if they make significant gains in the midterm elections.

In this particular case, O’Donnell asked during a debate at a law school, “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” While that may not have been too unusual for conservatives, when Chris Coons reminded her of the constitutional language, she asked, “That’s in the First Amendment?”

Of course, Nevada’s Sharron Angle, who actually has a strong chance of winning, has made very similar remarks, and yesterday, Rush Limbaugh endorsed the nonsense — which suggests Republicans everywhere will be expected to agree.

In one of his signature rants this afternoon, Limbaugh excoriated O’Donnell’s detractors by claiming the left has used the shorthand “separation of church and state” as a rationale for excluding religious people from government — as evidenced by the profusion of atheists serving in national office.

“Are you telling me separation of church and state’s in the First Amendment?” Limbaugh asked. “It’s not. Christine O’Donnell was absolutely correct — the First Amendment says absolutely nothing about the separation of church and state.”

Limbaugh added that liberals have interpreted the First Amendment to mean “that religious people cannot be in government.” I knew there was a reason government had been overrun by atheists.

Given where I used to work many years ago, this is a subject of particular interest. The right has been saying that church-state separation isn’t in the Constitution for a very long time — the Limbaugh/O’Donnell/Angle line isn’t new, though O’Donnell took it a little further than most — but reality is stubborn.

In a January 1, 1802 letter, President Thomas Jefferson wrote of the intended relationship between religion and government: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

The Establishment Clause sets up a line of demarcation between religion and government in our society, and the Supreme Court determines where the line is drawn to accommodate liberties in our ever-changing society. Although the exact language is absent, the Supreme Court has repeatedly determined that the Constitution does indeed call for separation between church and state.

Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” was first noted by the Supreme Court in an 1878 opinion by Chief Justice Morrison Waite. Justice Hugo Black later reaffirmed the wall’s significance in the landmark case Everson v. Board of Education (1947). Black wrote “In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’” The wall forbids government to actually or effectively favor one religion over another, favor religion over non-religion and vice-versa. Requiring neutrality removes the authority of government from religious practice and protects each citizen’s right to express his or her personal beliefs.

One can obviously read the Constitution and see that the literal phrase “separation of church and state” isn’t there, but a basic understanding of history and the law makes clear that the phrase is a shorthand to describe what the First Amendment does — it separates church from state.

Indeed, a variety of constitutional principles we all know and recognize aren’t literally referenced in the text. Americans’ “right to a fair trial” is well understood, but the exact phrase isn’t in the Constitution. “Separation of powers” is a basic principle of the U.S. Constitution, but it isn’t mentioned, either. More to the point, you can look for the phrase “freedom of religion” in the First Amendment, but those three words also don’t appear.

Ultimately, if you’re relying on extremist candidates and right-wing media personalities for constitutional scholarship, you’re going to be deeply confused.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.