Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The United States is not a theocracy

It seems that some conservatives are upset because newly elected Democratic Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, has decided to use the Qur'ān for the ceremonial swearing in instead of the Bible.

Predictably, this has gotten conservatives all riled up:
The decision by use the Muslim holy book for the ceremony...triggered an angry column by Dennis Prager on the Townhall website this week.

Headlined, "America, Not Keith Ellison, decides what book a congressman takes his oath on," Prager argued that using the Quran for the ceremony "undermines American civilization."

"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," he wrote. "If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress."
This column is filled with some of the most ridiculous sentences I have ever read. Two of the most ludicrous were in the above excerpt.

"Undermines American civilization?" He can't be serious. America is a nation that was founded on principles such as freedom of religion, not Christianity or any particular Christian denomination.

Our society includes people of many different faiths and people with no faith at all. The great thing about America is that discrimination is against our laws and every citizen is free to belong to whatever religion he or she pleases...or not.

Honoring the "Bible of this country", indeed.

As far as the laughable notion that "America is interested in only one book" (a phrase which, taken out of context, is hilarious given that hundreds of thousands of books are authored, published, sold, and enjoyed by Americans every year) anyone who looks at the Constitution can see that nowhere is a Bible required in the ceremony:
The Presidential oath of office is described in Article II, section 1 of the Constitution. Nothing in the section requires that the oath of office be taken on the Bible. Neither do the words "so help me God" appear in the oath. While Presidents often include this phrase in their inauguration ceremonies, the words are customary; they are not required by the Constitution and have no legal significance.

Additionally, we note that the words required by the Constitution are described as an "Oath or Affirmation," and that the President is allowed to simply affirm his faithfulness to the Constitution. The word "affirmation" was inserted in this section precisely to allow Presidents to avoid swearing oaths to God as a condition of taking office. This provision seems particularly intended for Quakers (who had religious objections to taking oaths), but it is worded broadly enough to encompass any person who objects to taking an oath, including non-theists.
The founders of this country were clearly intent on ensuring separation between church and state. They were wise and they knew what they were doing.

Keith Ellison was elected to Congress by the people of his district, who are now his constituents. That should be enough for Dennis Prager. America is not a Christian or Islamic theocracy. It is not a nation founded on any divine authority. It is a democracy where there is no requirement to adherence of any religion whatsoever.

No elected official is obliged to use the Bible in their swearing in ceremony. Nobody should be upset that Keith Ellison has chosen to use the Qur'ān. It's his choice. That's what freedom of religion is all about.

Perhaps Jamie Raskin, professor of law at American University, put it best:
"People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution; they don't put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible."
And if any newly or reelected elected official wants to use another spiritual text, or no spiritual text at all, there's nothing wrong with that.

UPDATE: ThinkProgress points out that if a Bible or any spiritual text is ever used, it's not part of the official ceremony - just in a photo-op:
Prager’s column is based on one other glaring error: the swearing-in ceremony for the House of Representatives never includes a religious book. The Office of the House Clerk confirmed to ThinkProgress that the swearing-in ceremony consists only of the Members raising their right hands and swearing to uphold the Constitution. The Clerk spokesperson said neither the Christian Bible, nor any other religious text, had ever been used in an official capacity during the ceremony. (Occasionally, Members pose for symbolic photo-ops with their hand on a Bible.)
Another fabricated controversy, of course, just like the manufactured "War on Christmas". Someone ought to remind Dennis Prager that the Ninth of the Ten Commandments is "thou shalt not bear false witness".

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