Ellison and the Oath: A Matter of Faith

What do you get when you throw a stick of dynamite into a room full of nitroglycerine?

Let me rephrase that: What do you get when religion, politics, and powerful symbols of American tradition all intersect to form a combination of controversy and conundrum?

The decision by newly minted Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) to take his oath of office on the Koran rather than the bible has many conservatives up in arms and many of the rest of us scratching our heads. There has been an enormous amount of ink spilled by those who believe that Ellison's choice of the Koran as a symbol to seal his oath somehow threatens American civilization. Columnist and syndicated radio host Dennis Prager pulled no punches:
First, it is an act of hubris that perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism-my culture trumps America's culture. What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book; all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.

Forgive me, but America should not give a hoot what Keith Ellison's favorite book is. Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress. In your personal life, we will fight for your right to prefer any other book. We will even fight for your right to publish cartoons mocking our Bible. But, Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath.
I sincerely hope that Mr. Prager was able to take something to cure whatever was ailing him the day he wrote that article. Referring to Ellison's "culture" (he was born and raised in this country) and the Koran as Ellison's "favorite book" was evidence of someone either suffering from a severe case of hyperbole or Prager was demonstrating a towering ignorance about the tradition and meaning of oaths.

Prager wasn't the only one to be caught up in this hysteria over where Ellison's hand was going to be when he swore to uphold the Constitution. Virginia Congressman Virgil Goode felt it necessary to send an email to hundreds of his constituents warning them that Ellison was just the tip of the iceberg; that unless we followed the Mr. Goode's advice and drastically curtailed the immigration of Muslims to America, we would end up with more Congressmen who would take the oath using the Koran:
In his letter, which was dated Dec. 5, Mr. Goode said that Americans needed to "wake up" or else there would "likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran."

"I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped," said Mr. Goode, who vowed to use the Bible when taking his own oath of office.
I am glad that Mr. Goode vowed to use the Bible when being sworn in. This despite the fact that no one in this country or on planet earth for that matter ever suggested that he would use anything else. Goode reassured us even more when he published a short column in USA Today wherein he dutifully informed us that he has a copy of the 10 Commandments on the wall of his office (presumably not the original) and that he does not subscribe to any of the tenets of the Koran nor will he display the book in his office. I'm sure this comes as an immense relief to his constituents although what relevance it has to his duties as a Congressman remains something of a mystery. Perhaps Goode believes that populating the country with strawmen is in his job description.

But Goode does his level best to ignore history and generate hysteria when he tries raise the spectre of some kind of Muslim invasion that would not only overwhelm our "resources" but even worse, mean the election of more Muslim Congressmen, probably Democrats. In fact, Goode has very little to worry about. The history of every immigrant group who has come to America has shown that the same fears expressed by Goode about the newcomers undermining our values and culture were used by nativist and anti-immigration forces in the past.

For the Irish, it was questioning how they could be loyal to both Rome and the US government. For the Italians, it was the fear that their birthrate would overwhelm the "real" Americans and we'd wake up one day and everyone would have a last name that ended in a vowel. And don't forget the mafia while your at it. Mexican immigrants in the past raised many of the same fears plus the added bugaboo of everyone having to learn Spainish in order to get by. I would argue that this has become more of a threat as the push to assimilate more recent Mexican immigrants has been blunted by many of those multiculturalists that Goode and Prager rail against. But Mexicans who have been here for generations turned out (not surprisingly) to be regular Americans who speak English, complain about high taxes, and even vote Republican sometimes.

The question is why we should expect anything less from Muslims than we did from Irish, Italians, or Mexicans? In fact, Muslims who have been here for several generations have adapted very nicely, thank you. Like all other immigrants in our history, they learn English, adapt American values, work hard, and are loyal, patriotic citizens. And like other immigrant groups, they have those who find it hard to fit in and adapt. There are enclaves of Muslims that wish to remain separate. And the lure of radical Islamism is certainly a reality that we must deal with. But are we to deny entry into this country for an entire religious sect because of the violent proclivities of the few? This has never been the American way and despite the fact that we are at war with Islamic extremists, we shouldn't change now.

I'm sure Ellison is enjoying all the attention. It is distracting people from examining his hyper-liberal record as well as some curious connections the new Congressman has with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). For a stunning review of these connections as well as a close look at some of his jaw dropping positions on the issues, the bloggers at Powerline covered these connections and positions so well that the local paper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune didn't even bother. Or perhaps what the Powerline crew uncovered would have been absolutely devastating to his candidacy which is why the liberal "Strib" never wrote a word about Ellison's radicalism.

Be that as it may, as a political junkie I can always appreciate a good political manuever. And Ellison has come up with a beaut. He will take the oath on a Koran owned by none other than the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson:
"He wanted to use a Koran that was special," said Mark Dimunation, chief of the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress, who was contacted by the Minnesota Dem early in December. Dimunation, who grew up in Ellison's 5th District, was happy to help.

Jefferson's copy is an English translation by George Sale published in the 1750s; it survived the 1851 fire that destroyed most of Jefferson's collection and has his customary initialing on the pages. This isn't the first historic book used for swearing-in ceremonies-the Library has allowed VIPs to use rare Bibles for inaugurations and other special occasions.
Pretty shrewd. And I'll bet Mr. Goode and perhaps even Dennis Prager are having a fit of apoplexy over Ellison's political master stroke.

All of this ignores two salient facts. The first being that the oath taken using the Bible (or the Koran or the Hindu Bhagvad Gita if you're so inclined) is actually the second oath taken by the incoming Congressmen. It is a photo-op, nothing more. The first oath is administered in private with no holy book at all. This not only raises the question of what the fuss is all about but also just what an oath or affirmation means?

An oath is a personal guarantee. Despite Dennis Prager's contention that the Congressional oath is somehow a rite that belongs to America, anytime someone swears - with or without a sacred text - that individual is giving a personal assurance that the terms of the oath will be upheld. Until recently, the bible was a powerful talisman to use when taking an oath because it was believed (and still is thought by some) that if you break an oath after swearing it on the bible, you go straight to hell when you die and burn for eternity with no possibility of being given a reprieve. This had the saluatory effect of assuring one and all that the individual swearing on the bible really meant it.

Times change and few would make a similar argument today. Instead, the consequences for breaking an oath are entirely secular in nature. In the case of a Congressman violating their oath to be loyal to America, one would think a very long jail term would be in the offing.

But it is the symbolic power of the oath as a reminder both to a Congressman and to his constituents that the stakes of service are high and that being true to the United States is extremely important. And if one is concerned about the Congressman holding that promise sacred by using a symbol to denote the seriousness and gravity of the moment, shouldn't that symbol reflect the deepest beliefs of the oath taker rather than some arbitrary construct that would be meaningless in a religious sense?

This is an issue that will not go away. Someday, a fundamentalist Muslim may be elected to Congress and questions will again be raised about "serving two masters" and whether or not someone who believes in the efficacy of Sharia law can serve after swearing allegiance to the Constitution. I don't think that day will come anytime soon. But when it does, I hope the hysteria can be kept to a minimum and we can examine the issue with reason and tolerance. For a nation founded on religious diversity, I see no reason why we shouldn't be able to manage without descending into the darkness of ignorance and bigotry.

Rick Moran is a frequent contributor and is proprietor of the blog  Right Wing Nuthouse.