An Elegant Epilogue
Article VI of the U.S. Constitution is clear: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Throughout American history, people of various faith backgrounds – and none – have served quite capably in government. It was quite a surprise, therefore, when Religious Right groups tried to sneak a religious test in through the back door. They insisted that newly elected U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was somehow doing something wrong when he announced his intention to take the oath of office on a Quran.
Conservative columnist Dennis Prager implied that Ellison’s plan was an insult to the country, writing, “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.” The American Family Association went so far as to advocate for federal legislation requiring members of Congress to swear on Bibles.
In the end, Ellison trounced his critics by swearing on a 250-year-old Quran that had once been owned by no less a personage than Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, one of history’s greatest advocates of religious liberty, opposed all forms of state-sponsored religion, and Ellison’s use of his Quran was a nice conclusion to an ugly episode.
Facts also demolished the far-right position. Prior to Ellison, other House members had taken the oath on different religious texts, including Jewish scriptures, and when members are officially sworn in en masse, they don’t use any religious text at all. Holy books are used only during a private photo op held later if the member wants one.
It’s sad that this issue came up at all. The sorry incident merely underscores just how intolerant the Religious Right is these days. The arguments put forth by the far right are so weak that to call them “pathetic” is being too kind.
U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), for example, asserted that allowing Ellison to swear on a Quran would somehow embolden Muslim extremists. Goode also used the phony controversy to argue for tighter controls on immigration, but his linking of those two issues makes no sense. Ellison was born and raised in the United States and converted to Islam in college.
Instead of fussing over holy books and swearing-in ceremonies, perhaps members of the Religious Right should spend some time engaging in a more productive activity: reading the Constitution. There are some surprising things in there.