I couldn’t be more pleased with the decision of Congressman-elect Keith Ellison of Minnesota who has decided that he will be sworn into office with the Koran. [Here is the story from the Chicago Tribune.] Of course, the blogosphere quickly heated up following this announcement. Here is one example from Dennis Prager: "He should not be allowed to do so, not because of any American
hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American culture." Is there a passage in the Constitution that our strict constructionists can point to that outlines a Bible only swearing in ceremony? They were concerned about concepts like corruption, government power, sovereignty, and representation. Sorry, but on this one it is safe to conclude that the Founders were "multiculturalists."
Thanks to Eugene Volokh over at National Review Online for pointing out the absurdity of Prager’s and other criticisms of Ellison:
Of course, some might care less about making the oath more effective, and more
about using the oath to reinforce traditional American values, in which they
include respect for the Bible (the “only … book” “America is interested in”)
over other holy books. That, I take it, is part of Prager’s argument, especially
when he goes on to say, “When all elected officials take their oaths of office
with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value
system underlies American civilization.”
Yet this would literally violate
the Constitution’s provision that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a
Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” For the
devout, taking an oath upon a religious book is a religious act. Requiring the
performance of a religious act using the holy book of a particular religion is a
religious test. If Congress were indeed to take the view that “If you are
incapable of taking an oath on that book [the Bible], don’t serve in Congress,”
it would be imposing an unconstitutional religious test.
the Constitution itself expressly recognizes the oath as a religious act that
some may have religious compunctions about performing. The religious-test clause
is actually part of a longer sentence: “The Senators and Representatives …
[and other state and federal officials] shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation,
to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required ….”
The option of giving an affirmation rather than oath reflects the judgment — an
early multiculturalist judgment — in favor of accommodating members of some
denominations (such as Quakers) who read the Bible as generally prohibiting the
swearing of oaths.
These doomsday cries have become all too common, but we should keep in mind that they are empirical claims; in other words, the burden is on Prager to show how someone’s faith other than Christianity constitutes a threat to "American culture." Last time I checked our Constitution protected freedom of religion. Isn’t the idea that religion should not be a test for office part of our culture and history?
I can’t help but think that this has little to do with culture and congressional history and everything to do with an irrational paranoia about Islam. Does taking the oath of office on the Bible necessarily lead to a more responsible representative? Do I even have to answer this question? What I find even more interesting is the very real possibility that there have been at least a small number of public servants who have taken the oath with the Bible, but are not "true believers." In other words, they just went through the motions. Why does this not bother anyone? Why isn’t an insincere oath not seen as a threat to our national culture. Isn’t Ellison’s religious convictions and identification with the Koran at least worth the same amount of respect?
I have no doubut that allowing Ellison to practice his faith openly without any of this irrational criticism can only help us on the long road back to reaching a position where we can actively and constructively engage the Islamic world.