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« And a bah humbug to you, Fairfax County | Main | Re: Truce & Who Cares? »

November 29, 2006

So Help Me [God]

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.

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Comments

David Cervera

This issue may never have come up in swearing in a congressman, but surely it's been addressed in swearing in witnesses in our court system? What do we do in that situation with a Muslim, a Buddhist, an atheist, or even a Christian who refuses to swear an oath (see Matthew 5:33-37)? It seems whatever standard we accept there should apply in this case as well.

Travis McSherley

David - great point, one that crossed my mind as well. In the only case I recall this question being discussed, the judge (in North Carolina, if memory serves) determined that a witness would not be allowed to swear upon the Quran.

You are quite right that the questions involved would be similar, though I suppose the answers could be different at the state and federal levels. These are big questions, to be sure.

Jason Taylor

This is an old thread but it got me thinking. If I recall during the USS Indianapolis court-martial one side(the prosecution I think) actually brought out the Japanese officer who had sunk her as a witness(a slightly bizarre way of proving the war was over perhaps). The other side argued that he could not swear on the Bible as it had no meaning to him whereupon it was aggreed that he would swear an oath appropriate to him.

Not to revive the discussion. Just to remember an interesting incident.

David

TM's observation that "it could be dangerous territory to ask an elected official to base his service on a denial of his own belief system" points to the real issue for choosing public servants (or friends, mates, etc): the important question is not what we swear by, but what we live by. As the guidelines in the Federal Rules of Evidence point out, an oath is just an effort to get the oath taker to be honest. To ask someone to swear on what they do not believe in is to invite them to be dishonest from day one of their service! On the other hand, if they do live by what they prefer to swear by, then it is important to understand what they live by. That understanding needs to inform the voters long before the swearing-in ceremony.

If one accepts the idea that a public servant ought to swear by what is holiest to him/her, I find myself wondering what an atheist would swear by. I do not look forward to the day we see someone place their hand on Dawkins's book, The God Delusion, and say "...so help me...hmmmm... Nevermind, I don't need any help".

Rolley Haggard

Gina, Travis,

Picking up on Jason Taylor's remark above that he was not trying to "revive the discussion", it isn't counter to blog etiquette to revisit "ancient" threads is it? I didn't see anything in the Comment Policy forbidding it.

One thing I enjoy (when I have time) is to go back and read blogs and comments that were written before I started coming to The Point (more or less regularly) about a year ago. Many of those excellent posts are timeless and IMHO warrant perpetual periodic revisitation "as the spirit moves." More than once I've been stirred to register a remark or two, hopefully apropos to the long-dormant discussion, and I've noticed others do, too, on occasion.

Though it may seem at times I am prone to push the boundaries of commenter's etiquette (hopefully always in a playful and conceivably constructive way), I really would like clarification on this question.

Truth is, despite appearances from time to time, I do fear the soap and ruler.

:)

Gina Dalfonzo

No, there's no policy against it, Rolley. Not to worry.

LeeQuod

Rolley wrote: "Truth is, despite appearances from time to time, I do fear the soap and ruler."

And not the one who wields them? Sounds like idolatry to me; fire up the barbie, labrialumn! ;-)

Jason Taylor

To be honest, I was just bored and it was a quiet morning.

Rolley Haggard

Actually, LeeQuod, I employed a figure of speech called metonymy, of which, no doubt the Wielder of Soap and Ruler is familiar. Metonymy makes reference to a subject by means of an object suggestive of (associated with) the subject.

So, appearances notwithstanding, I do believe I’m vindicated of the charge of idolatry and have no need to fear soap, ruler, or flamethrower.

So thbb.

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What are you staring at? I always wear asbestos hockey gear when posting comments.

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