Friday, December 22, 2006

Conservatives and Keith Ellison

It has been illuminating to watch the reactions of some religious and social conservatives to the election of Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress. Ellison, an African-American Democrat who converted to Islam while in college, will represent the 5th Congressional district of Minnesota in the 110th Congress. Over the course of his campaign, Ellison amassed a diverse array of progressive endorsements, including backing from the American Jewish World, a local Minneapolis news daily.

With that kind of solid, across the board backing, one might draw the conclusion that Americans can see past their personal differences and choose candidates that best represent their points of view. However, the backlash from the right to Ellison's election shows that we still have some way to go to eliminate religious intolerance from our society.

The first salvo launched against Ellison came from CNN's Glen Beck, who had the audacity to ask the congressman elect, in a live televised interview, to prove to him that he was, "...not working with our enemies'".

Next, Dennis Prager, a conservative columnist and radio host, penned an ignorant editorial on, making the point that Ellison should not have the opportunity to use the Koran for his swearing in ceremony:
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.

The above statement shows a disturbing lack of historical knowledge on the part of Prager. Members of Congress, when they take their official oath of office, do not swear on a religious book of any kind; rather, they place their hands on the document they swear to uphold, the United States Constitution (the very same Constitution that prohibits the use of any religious tests to disqualify potential members from serving). In a separate, non-official ceremony, elected members are allowed to use religious texts (or indeed, anything at all) for their swearing in. The Carpetbagger Report gives more background:

Second, Prager argues that "America…decides on what book its public servants take their oath." Wrong again. Public officials, from the president on down, have always picked their own books for oaths of office. Some have chosen the Christian Bible, others haven’t. There is no official national book for oaths.

Third, Prager argues that Jewish public officials "for all of American history" have taken their oath on the Bible, and no member of Congress has ever strayed from this standard. Fifteen seconds on Google turned up a very recent example — Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) refused the Christian Bible offered by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) for her swearing-in and eventually borrowed a Hebrew Bible from a colleague. Somehow, Prager's hysteria notwithstanding, American civilization survived.

Here's the real kicker: according to a report last week in Roll Call, when lawmakers are sworn on Jan. 3 on the House floor, there is no Bible present. When we see pictures of members putting their hands on a holy text, those are ceremonial photo-ops, not the actual oaths of office.

For that matter, even then it's optional. This year, for example, Rep.-elect Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who is Buddhist, will forgo use of any religious text in her ceremonial swearing-in ceremony. That's her right; it doesn’t undermine the fabric of society.

As if the two above examples were not bad enough, this week, Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA), sank to a new low by releasing a letter to his constituents, warning that "many more Muslims" might be elected to Congress if legal immigration policies are not tightened. Despite the considerable outcry the letter has received, Goode has declared that he will not retract his statements. He even went so far as to say, in response to a note supporting his position, that he wished, "...more people would take a stand and stand up for the principles on which this country was founded."

Goode, like Prager, has apparently forgotten (or conveniently overlooked) his history. Mr. Goode's congressional district includes the city of Charlottesville, where the University of Virginia resides. The writings of the founder of UVa, Thomas Jefferson, can offer Goode some guidance on the principles he seems to have misunderstood. One of Jefferson's most important contributions to the political and social fabric of our country is the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, which he authored in 1786. That document says that Americans of any stripe should have the freedom to believe in any supreme being they so choose (or to believe in no such thing at all). That Goode would attempt to demonize an entire religion to score political points shouldn't at all be shocking, but it should be terribly disheartening, not only for his constituents who don't share his odious views, but also for anyone who dares to believe that our political discourse can be, and should be, better than this.

Update: Over at Talking Points Memo and TPMuckracker, Josh Marshall and Justin Rood have been noting the silence from the GOP on Goode's remarks. Notable today, however, were the comments from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on ABC's This Week. Graham's comments can be found in full here.

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