By Jonathan Turley
The newest member of the Minnesota delegation, Keith Ellison, would appear to be the very model of a god-fearing congressman whom conservatives have longed for. Yet Ellison has been denounced as a constitutional blasphemer after discussing his upcoming oath of office. The problem was not with Ellison’s oath, but with his god — Ellison is Muslim (our nation’s first in Congress) and intends to use the Quran today to pledge to serve faithfully before Allah.
Judging from the outcry, one would think that Ellison wanted to use the January edition of Penthouse. America’s permanently angry class of religious zealots has organized protests. Some have called for a law requiring that all members use the Bible — regardless of whether they believe a single word in it. They do not expect Ellison’s conversion, they just want him (and presumably the two new Buddhist members) to pay tribute to their faith system.
President Bush has not addressed the controversy, even though it was started by one of his appointees — a rabid talk show host named Dennis Prager whom Bush appointed to the prestigious United States Holocaust Museum Board.
“Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned,” Prager wrote, “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.”
Bush’s silence is curious given his tireless campaign against “Islamofascists,” extremists who seek to force people to conform to their Islamic faith. In this age of hyphenated fascism, what do we call Jews or Christians who want to force non-believers to swear to the Bible? Judeo-Christofascists?
Even in Iran …
Of course, the comparison with Islamofascists might not be fair — to Islamofascists. Take the quintessential, Bush-certified Islamofascist regime of Iran. Under Article 3 of the Iranian Constitution, “members representing minority religious groups will take the oath mentioning their own holy books.”
It appears that though the Iranian government denies the Holocaust and calls for the eradication of Israel, it views Prager’s idea of requiring people to swear to someone else’s faith to be … well … extreme. (Iran’s parliament has had a Jewish member, Morris Motamed, for years — though the Jewish population is about 25,000 out of 70 million). Various experts on Iran told me that such tailoring of oaths to religions goes back to early Islam. Indeed, Tehran University professor Hossein Bashiriyeh explained that “an oath taken with a holy book other than one’s own cannot be religiously and morally ‘binding.’ … In effect it will amount to not taking an oath at all.”
Nevertheless, last year, a North Carolina judge ruled that a Muslim would have to swear on a Bible rather than a Quran. His reason was a 1777 oath statute that referred to the use of “the Holy Scriptures” to guarantee that anyone lying would be “justly deprived of all the blessings of that holy book.” Since Muslims are not seeking “the blessings of that holy book,” it was the ultimate triumph of form over substance.
To their credit, various Jewish groups and leaders have denounced Prager, who is Jewish, as a bigot. The Anti-Defamation League called his views “intolerant, misinformed and downright un-American.” (On the defensive, Prager recently suggested that he might accept Ellison’s use of the Quran if he also brings a Bible “to honor it.”)
Yet many leaders have supported Prager.
Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., even used Ellison as a lesson on illegal immigration. (Ellison was born in Detroit and converted to Islam in college.) Referring to “the Muslim representative from Minnesota,” Goode stressed that “if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt (my) position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran.”
The powerful American Family Association has called for the use of the Bible for all members of Congress. AFA President Tim Wildmon explained that the Quran “represents a change in our society, our culture” if it is to be treated “as equivalent to the Holy Bible.” In perhaps the only point of universal agreement, Wildmon noted that, “If calling the Bible superior to the Quran in American tradition and culture is intolerant, then I’m guilty.”
Prager was equally unapologetic, dismissing the Quran as if it were some book-of-the-month selection: “Forgive me, but America should not give a hoot what Keith Ellison’s favorite book is.”
About that oath
Both Prager and his allies show how intolerance is often based on ignorance. First, all members are actually sworn in at the same time using a generic oath that ends with “so help me God.” The Bibles are pulled out for a later, purely ceremonial event for some members. Second, if Wildmon’s law were passed, it would clearly violate Article VI of the Constitution, which states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Third, it is entirely untrue that, as Prager claims, the use of a non-Bible would be “the first break of the tradition of having a Bible present at a ceremony of installation of a public official since George Washington inaugurated the tradition.” Presidents such as John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover opted not to use the Bible (Adams used a legal book). Franklin Pierce declined to take a sworn oath at all and instead simply affirmed. Likewise, other members have foregone the Christian Bible. As recently as 2005, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., used a Tanakh, a Hebrew Bible without the New Testament, to be sworn into office.
Nevertheless, Prager insists “if Keith Ellison is allowed to change that, he will be doing more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9/11.” Another possibility: that Prager and his allies are doing the greatest damage to the unity of America by fostering religious divisions and promoting prejudice as principle.
Just as fascism is the ugly face of nationalist politics, Judeo-Christofascism is the ugly face of faith-based politics. When Ellison takes the oath with his hand on Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Quran, he will reaffirm our most basic values as a country and, in a single elegant moment, defeat those who use but do not live the tenets of faith.