December 20, 2006
Ellison, Prager, and Swearing-in on the KoranBy Bookworm
Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, announced that he would take his Congressional oath using a Koran, rather than a Bible. This bit of news would have passed under the radar were it not for the fact that Dennis Prager wrote a column objecting:
Prager went on to elaborate that, to the extent Ellison believes a private oath ceremony with a Holy Book is necessary, his decision to use the Koran is a piece of navel gazing that undermines longstanding American tradition.
Dennis Prager promptly came under ferocious attack for his views. CAIR, trying to hit Prager where he lives, demanded that he lose his place on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council ("USHMC"). Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who also serves on the USHMC joined in this demand, adding with his usual vulgar panache that Prager is a "bigot" and a "shmuck." Of course, as Prager himself pointed out, the racism charge reflects a knee jerk liberal reaction to anything antithetical to the liberal viewpoint, because there was nothing whatsoever in Prager's original column about race.
In the face of the non-stop attacks against him, Prager explained his position more clearly, and suggested that his concerns could be addressed if Ellison, in keeping with American tradition, would simply bring a Bible along with him:
I've felt from the beginning that there is something wrong with Prager's original position supporting a Bible-only ceremony (although, being familiar with his writings, I acquit him of anti-religious animus, racism, or any other type of malice). My initial take on the matter was that, to the extent Ellison is being asked to swear an oath, that oath has meaning only if the oath taker swears on something that has moral resonance to him, and that promises rewards and punishments beyond those that man is capable of doling out. Otherwise, it's just meaningless formalism.
As a lawyer, I've actually thought about this a lot in connection with courtroom oaths. In the old days, witnesses used to place their hands on the Bible and swear to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God." What made a witness's promise to tell the truth believable was that the oath taker was putting his eternal soul on the line. Lying wouldn't be breaking a vow to the court, it would be breaking a promise to God.
Nowadays, in most, if not all, American courts, the oath taker merely promises "to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" - end of story. All that breaking the promise risks is a perjury charge, which is pretty small potatoes compared to the old problem of eternal damnation. Even a religious person who believes in a soul imperiled is unlikely to be impressed by this mealy mouthed, secular affirmation of honesty.
But let's get back to Prager's problem, because even my concern about a spiritual commitment to oath-taking doesn't quite apply in this situation. This is so because, in January, with or without the Koran at his side, Ellison is going to stand up and state the following:
It's a very simple oath, one that boils down to an absolute promise to respect, abide by and protect the Constitution, which is America's seminal legal document. The real question, and one that Prager never reaches, is whether a devout Muslim can actually take this oath. To understand this, one needs to step back a bit and look at the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is, and always has been, dominant in America.
Biblical Israel died in the 1st Century A.D. when the Romans crushed the Jewish revolt against Roman rule and destroyed the Temple. There were a few uprisings here and there after the Roman victory, but the Jews never succeeded in resurrecting the Biblical nation.
Ordinarily, in the ancient world, the destruction of a nation's temple; the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of its people; and the dispersal of most of the survivors, many into slavery, spelled the end of that nation. History is littered with civilizations that rose, prospered and vanished. That was not what happened to the Jewish people, however. Instead, in the wake of the Temple's destruction, the "rabbinical period" in Jewish history began.
It was during this rabbinical period that the rabbis formulated the school of thought that dominates modern Judaism - namely, that the Jewish religion is not a matter of state but, instead, is a personal code of conduct and morality. Provided that they are not called upon to engage in conduct antithetical to their religious beliefs, Jews can function in any society and can swear allegiance to any society or legal document that does not impinge upon their religious beliefs. That's why America works well for the Jews (and, I think, the Jews work well for America).
Christianity, too, separated religion from the state, although that hasn't always been apparent looking back on Western history. What most people don't realize is that the church-state nexus did not arise because Christianity encroached upon the state. After all, it was Christ who said "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:21.) Jesus may have been talking taxes, but he was also advocating the separation of ecclesiastic and secular power.
Instead, the state and the church became entangled when leaders such as Constantine and Charlemagne encroached upon and co-opted the religion to consolidate their secular power. There was nothing new about this. Pagan monarchies had nearly always used religion to enhance their authority, so that people's faith in God become inextricably intertwined with their fealty to their leader. (Caesar, for example, claimed to be one of Venus's descendants.) While it's true that, in subsequent centuries, spiritual and secular leaders ended up in each other's laps for their mutual benefit, they never actually lost sight of the fact that they were independent from each other.
What all this means is that, while the Founding Fathers were viewed as progressive and revolutionary for sundering religion and politics, the decision was, in fact, quite reactionary, in that it returned the church to a time when it was independent of the state. This was precisely what Jesus envisioned and what the rabbis had accomplished in the early centuries of the Christian era. Whether we look at Jesus, the rabbis or the Founders, all of them recognized that religion was corrupted by the State and that religion is a matter of individual faith and morality, not a matter of politics.
The situation is quite different when it comes to Islam. Islam makes no distinction between religion and the State. Instead, it envisions the state as something akin to a giant congregation, entirely controlled by religious law, with no room for external law, legislation or morality. As a Wikipedia article on the subject neatly summarizes:
Jihadists around the world have been open in their call for a Caliphate and we've seen that, wherever Islamists obtain control over government, they institute Shari'a law to the exclusion of all other laws. Easy examples of this fact are Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, the Sudan and Somalia.
All of which gets us back to Keith Ellison and his originally stated intention to take the oath of office relying solely on his Koran. Although there is often a vast chasm between theory and practice, theory, as I understand it, says that a true Muslim cannot simultaneously believe in the Koran's dictates and swear an oath to protect a Western legal document such as the Constitution. The two documents (the Koran and the Constitution) envision entirely antithetical laws and the Koran mandates that its believers, as part of their faith, bend every effort to ensuring the Koran's ascendancy over all other forms of government and faith.
In other words, Prager was wrong about Ellison's using the Koran at his swearing-in, not because it represented an act of multiculturalist self-obsession, but because a really religious man cannot do both acts at the same time. That is, as a devout Muslim, one cannot swear to support any political system other than Shari'a, and one certainly can't do so using the very same Koran that proscribes all other systems.
Having said all this, this is basically a reductio ad absurdum argument, because I know of no evidence whatsoever that Ellison, although vocal about his devout faith, takes his religious beliefs so seriously that he cannot be a good American, a good Congressman, and a zealous Constitutional defender. As it happens, I disagree with how he interprets the Constitution, but that's not because he's a Muslim, it's because he's a liberal Democrat and I'm not.
Thus, while I'm going to keep my eye on the American branch of Muslim Brotherhood, which has a stated goal of overthrowing the Constitution and replacing it with Shari'a law, I'm not too worried about Mr. Ellison - yet.
Bookworm is a crypto-conservative in a deep blue community. She blogs at Bookworm Room.