A newly elected Muslim congressman from Minnesota turned the tables on his critics last month by taking the oath of office on a Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson.
The swearing-in of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress, should have been a routine matter. But right-wing pundits and Religious Right groups chose to make a huge fuss over it.
In December, radio talk-show host Dennis Prager wrote a column insisting that Ellison should take the oath of office on the Bible. The piece was reprinted on many far-right Web sites and led U.S. Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (R-Va.) to issue an e-mail to constituents criticizing Ellison.
“[I]f 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 Koran,” Goode wrote in the message.
Some right-wing bloggers asserted, without any evidence, that Ellison is somehow in league with Islamic extremists. In fact, he is a progressive Democrat who has endorsed religious liberty for all groups.
Ellison’s defenders pointed out that nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires members of Congress to take the oath of office on a holy book of any sort and noted that Article VI specifically forbids religious tests for public office. In the official swearing-in for all members of Congress, no religious texts of any kind are used.
In the ceremonial photo ops undertaken later, representatives may use any religious text they choose – or none at all.
Ellison, whose district includes Minneapolis and some of its eastern suburbs, chose to remain above the fray. He told reporters he looked forward to meeting Goode and helping him learn more about Islam. He also arranged to swear on a Quran once owned by Jefferson. The two-volume version is an English translation published in the 1750s and is now held by the Library of Congress.
“He wanted to use a Quran that was special,” Mark Dimunation, chief of the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress, told The Washington Post. Dimunation grew up in the part of Minnesota Ellison represents and arranged for the loan of the books.
“The very foundation of our nation, the authors of our Constitution impressed, is religious freedom, and the use of Jefferson’s Quran shows that the founders not only knew of the Quran but also used it,” Ellison said during his swearing-in ceremony.
U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who was raised a Buddhist, supported Ellison’s move.
“It’s about time that we have people of other backgrounds and faiths in Congress,” Hirono told Gannett News Service. “I think Keith Ellison really handled things well. I think that whole discussion, if you want to call it that, is good for our country. What happened to separation of church and state and religious tolerance? I believe in those things.”
Americans United noted that Jefferson would be pleased to see government equality for all faith perspectives. When his pioneering “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” was debated in the Virginia legislature, efforts were made to introduce Christian language into the measure. These failed, and Jefferson rejoiced.
Some years later, Jefferson wrote, “The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”