So Help Me [God]
|by Travis McSherley|
Now that the first Muslim has been elected to Congress, Dennis Prager and Eugene Volokh have weighed in on the inevitable clash of worldviews that will accompany his swearing in. Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison intends to take his oath of office on the Quran, rather than the Bible, and his decision is bound to spark a difficult debate with no easy answers.
Prager argues that to allow Ellison to swear upon the Quran would be an affront to the American republic:
He should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization.
First, it is an act of hubris that perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism -- my culture trumps America's culture. What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book; all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.
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.
Volokh counters, however:
This argument both mistakes the purpose of the oath, and misunderstands the Constitution. In fact, it calls for the violation of some of the Constitution’s multiculturalist provisions.
To begin with, the oath is a religious ritual, both in its origins and its use by the devout today. The oath invokes God as a witness to one’s promise, as a means of making the promise more weighty on the oathtaker’s conscience.
This is why, for instance, the Federal Rules of Evidence, dealing with the related subject of the courtroom oath, state, “Before testifying, every witness shall be required to declare that the witness will testify truthfully, by oath or affirmation administered in a form calculated to awaken the witness’ conscience and impress the witness’ mind with the duty to do so.” If you want the oath to be maximally effective, then it is indeed entirely true that “all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.” That book is the one that will most impress the oathtaker’s mind with the duty to comply with the oath.
Each writer makes a strong case here. But this is, perhaps, a more important and difficult discussion than either gives it credit for. It is one that could further shape, I think -- or at least reveal -- the state of America's understanding of God.
My heart certainly sides with Prager, though I am not convinced that prohibiting Ellison from using the Quran to administer his oath is the best means of protecting America's Christian tradition or upholding the Biblical standard. I do not lack in hostility toward the Quran, yet it could be dangerous territory to ask an elected official to base his service on a denial of his own belief system.
The central questions here might then be: Does the United States hold a collective acknowledgment of the sovereignty of the God of Scripture, or do we defer to the worldviews of individual Americans? Thus, does a new member of Congress (or judge, or president) swear upon the beliefs of a nation "under God" or upon his own?
I lean toward the former, in that a society invariably operates under one system of values (however loosely defined), lest it fall into a relativistic anarchy. Volokh's arguments notwithstanding, the Constitution itself doesn't present a comprehensive foundation upon which to stand. Still, these are largely uncharted waters for an increasingly pluralistic age, and we do well to navigate them carefully.