Saturday, December 02, 2006

Keith Ellison, the Quran, and the Bible

Ah, Keith Ellison. Is this not a Christian nation? That Minnesota heathen, er, Mohammedan ... scuse me, Muslim who was just elected the first such in the American Congress is threatening to swear on the holy Quran (or Koran, if you prefer the spelling that Moslems ... oops, Muslims don't prefer) for his oath of office.

Who would do such a thing? Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat, is not only the first Muslim elected to a federal office in America, he's also Minnesota's first black Congressman.

There's an interesting history to oath-taking-on-books. The first thing I thought of when I heard Ellison was thinking about using the Quran was British writer John Fowles' 1969 novel The French Lieutenant's Woman. It's set in 1860s England. In one scene, a couple of the characters are having a serious discussion:
He turned and went to the bookshelves by his desk and then came back with the same volume he had shown Charles before: Darwin's great work. He sat before him across the fire; then with a small smile and a look at Charles over his glasses, he laid his hand, as if swearing on a Bible, on The Origin of the Species.

"Nothing that has been said in this room or that remains to be said shall go beyond its walls." Then he put the book aside.
To these two nineteenth century naturalists, "Darwin's great work" symbolized the height of reason and truth -- or at least the most promising effort in its pursuit. It was therefore a much weightier book than the Bible and an oath upon it was a much more meaningful gesture. This is the point of an oath. It's a ceremony in which we invoke something greater than ourselves, but something very personal, to publicly declare our honor. It's simply a way of emphasizing that we mean what we say.

In Freemasonry, which is a hundreds-years-old fraternal organization steeped in philosophy, mysticism, and ceremony, a holy book plays a large role. There are oaths taken on this book. But since Freemasonry (and this is key) is not a religion, it does not matter which holy book is used in the lodge. American Freemasonry demands its adherents share a belief in a higher power, but members need not be Christians. Most are.

Mainline Islam, like the Roman Catholic church, has tended to be against Freemasonry (the Knights of Columbus was founded to give Catholics an alternative to Masonry), but there are both Catholic and Muslim Masons. A lodge will use whatever book most of its members hold most holy. French Freemasonry, as I understand it, makes no requirement that its members believe in a supreme being. My point is that in Freemasonry, an oath is not taken to bind one to the book, but to display one's honor and connect him to the group. Because these oaths are personal, the book doesn't matter.

Nor should it matter in American politics. This is why I'm so bewildered by Dennis Prager's rant about Ellison. Here's what Prager said:
"He should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization.

"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."
His first mistake is to assume America's culture is Christian. His second is to make any claim that America might have a holiest book. In a nation made from and founded on the rest of the word's people settling here, it's folly to hold us all to one holy book. Aren't our holiest documents the ones our founders wrote to declare our nationhood and lay down our ideals?

Serving in one's country bonds the personal to the public. The oath of office is the ceremony to publicly declare and celebrate this. If I swear on your book, a book that has no personal spiritual value to me, why are you satisfied? Prager misses the point of the oath.

Now may be a good time to remind our American citizenry that much of our "Godliness" comes not from our founding fathers, but from our reactionary grandfathers -- those Cold War paranoids who put the "under God" in our "Pledge of Allegiance" and added "In God We Trust" to our paper money. They did it in the 1950s. David Greenberg, writing for Slate, has an excellent short history of the intrusion of God into American politics in the fifites. Here's an excerpt:
Hand in hand with the Red Scare, to which it was inextricably linked, the new religiosity overran Washington. Politicians outbid one another to prove their piety. President Eisenhower inaugurated that Washington staple: the prayer breakfast. Congress created a prayer room in the Capitol. In 1955, with Ike's support, Congress added the words "In God We Trust" on all paper money. In 1956 it made the same four words the nation's official motto, replacing "E Pluribus Unum." Legislators introduced Constitutional amendments to state that Americans obeyed "the authority and law of Jesus Christ."
Oh my. Maybe Prager's right after all. Maybe this is a Christian nation. If so, let's be clear: it became official a mere 50 years ago. Not upon its founding.

I'm kind of upset now. I need a remedy. Where can I turn for solace? How about our friends at the conservative magazine, the National Review. Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor reminds us that oaths need not be taken on books:
The Federal Rules of Evidence, dealing with the related subject of the courtroom oath, state, “Before testifying, every witness shall be required to declare that the witness will testify truthfully, by oath or affirmation administered in a form calculated to awaken the witness’ conscience and impress the witness’ mind with the duty to do so.” If you want the oath to be maximally effective, then it is indeed entirely true that “all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.” That book is the one that will most impress the oathtaker’s mind with the duty to comply with the oath.
So that means you can also just raise your hand and affirm that you will tell the truth.

To Prager's angry appeal that American decides the book, Volokh says:
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.
Another UCLA law professor, Stephen Bainbridge, wrote on his blog that some of the anti-Ellison/Quran commentary reminded him of an earlier episode in American history:
Perhaps more seriously, however, Prager's claims remind me very much of certain arguments made by earlier Americans. We learn from the Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, that:

"John Jay, of New York, who afterwards became Chief Justice of the United States, succeeded in fastening upon the Constitution of his own state a provision which denied the privilege of citizenship to every foreign-born Catholic unless he would first abjure and renounce all allegiance to the pope in matters ecclesiastical."

When Prager says to Ellison "America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath," I hear the echoes of John Jay. There's not much daylight between the arguments Prager is making and those made by generations of WASPs to keep people of my faith out of the public arena.
Back to Volokh's National Review article. I like his conclusion:
Much folly has been urged in the name of multiculturalism. But this is no reason to dismiss the core notion that a nation should both create a common culture and leave people with the freedom to retain important aspects of other cultures -- especially religious cultures. That notion is deeply American, and expressly enshrined in our Constitution. If it is "political correctness," it is so only in the sense that it's a political notion, and a correct one. It has served us well, even when dealing with religious groups that were once hated and seen as incompatible with American values, such as Catholics.
Anyone who, like me, believes in a strict division between church and state will not worry about someone making an oath on a Quran. We understand that the oath is a personal pledge to uphold a public duty to a higher purpose -- our American democracy. But if you believe that we are a Christian nation "Under God," then you might worry that what Ellison is doing is making a promise to his faith, not to his country. Ellison is a Democrat, so I don't think Christian Republicans have anything to worry about.



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