Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Jefferson's Quran

In what the Washington Post calls "a savvy bit of political symbolism," the nation's first Muslim congressman, Minnesota's Keith Ellison, will be using Thomas Jefferson's 1764 copy of the Quran for his swearing-in ceremony.

It's a brilliant move. Mark Dimunation, the chief of the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress (who happens to be a Minnesotan from Ellison's district), says he got a call from Ellison about using the book last month. But, writes the Associated Press's Frederic J. Frommer, it was an anonymous tip that clued Ellison in. I'm betting it was the librarian.

From the AP:
"It demonstrates that from the very beginning of our country, we had people who were visionary, who were religiously tolerant, who believed that knowledge and wisdom could be gleaned from any number of sources, including the Quran," Ellison said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

"A visionary like Thomas Jefferson was not afraid of a different belief system," Ellison said. "This just shows that religious tolerance is the bedrock of our country, and religious differences are nothing to be afraid of."
On the other hand, retorted James S. Robbins in the National Review Online:
The Bashaw of Tripoli’s justification for war on American trading ships in the Mediterranean two hundred years ago, according to Thomas Jefferson, was that “it was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners.” By all means let Keith Ellison swear in using Jefferson's Koran, maybe afterwards he can look up the passages that discuss smiting the infidels at the neck and make great slaughter among them. Probably underlined.
I'm still waiting for someone to come up with a decent response to that. The best I can do is John Nichols, who, writing for The Nation's blog, said: "And Jefferson, who spoke and wrote so extensively about his interest in and respect for Islam, would surely be honored to know that Ellison's hand will rest on the Koran that an enlightened Founder bequeathed not just to the Library of Congress but to America." Would Jefferson have condoned the rhetoric of one Virgil Goode, a reactionary Republican representative from the third president's home county? "If American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran," Goode wrote early last month. In an opinion piece in USA Today this week, Goode wrote:
I believe that if we do not stop illegal immigration totally, reduce legal immigration and end diversity visas, we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to infiltration by those who want to mold the United States into the image of their religion, rather than working within the Judeo-Christian principles that have made us a beacon for freedom-loving persons around the world.
Goode sent a letter to his constituents last month, which was reprinted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Technically, Goode doesn't say it's wrong to swear on the Quran. He just says "I do not subscribe to using the Koran in any way." John Nichols (The Nation) says Goode et al. are trying to remold America into a Christian nation, something it's never been:
History does not provide even a soft grounding for this fantasy. The Founders of the country were men and women of the Enlightenment who, while surely imperfect in their thoughts and deeds, wisely sought to burst the chains of what Thomas Jefferson referred to as "monkish ignorance and superstition." They revolted against the divine right of kings, rejected the construct of state-sponsored religion and wrote a Constitution that not only guaranteed freedom of religion but required that: "The Senators and Representatives ... and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
That last part is the key. That's what we all ought to be re-reading. No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. And as I wrote here last month, it's an asinine misunderstanding of oath-taking to think that swearing on a book means that one is swearing to uphold the values of that book. That's implicit in the fact that you're using that book in the first place. Swearing on a book one believes in is done to ensure that one is being honest about one's oath of office, which is to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

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