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« Re: Truce & Who Cares? | Main | The story behind the tabloid »

November 30, 2006

Re: So Help Me God

Travis, I guess it's my day to disagree with my friends and colleagues.

I agree with UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge when he writes that "Prager's argument strikes me as fundamentally misguided." For starters, there is no requirement that elected officials swear on any book, holy or otherwise, at all. The Constitution reads:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

That's all that is required by the Constitution itself and Prager's efforts to retroactively add additional requirements is precisely the kind of move that gives legs to expressions like "theocrats" and (I really hate this one) "Christianist," although, obviously, not in Prager's case.

More importantly,

[F]reedom of religious exercise is a core value of American civilization. Requiring someone to take an oath on the holy book of a faith he or she does not share violates that person's right to freely exercise their religion (not to mention constituting a government endorsement of that religion). Hence, for example, despite many movies to the contrary, courts generally do not require atheists to swear on the Bible or even to say "so help me god" before testifying.

While I'm also concerned about the "relativistic anarchy" you write about, the "foundation" you seek cannot be built or otherwise provided by compelling people to pay obeisance, however minor it may seem to us, to a religion or belief system they do not hold. What's more, as one commenter noted, what gave religious oaths their power was the belief that violating your oath was an offense against the God you invoked in your oath. How requiring people who don't believe in the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ to swear in His name and place their hand on His word provides a moral foundation for doing the people's business is beyond me.

What's more, what's happening here isn't so much a case of "[deferring] to the worldviews of individual Americans" as it is acknowledging that the plurality of religious traditions in contemporary American life. Ellison isn't following his bliss or even swearing by the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Ellison has, for good and/or ill, embraced a religion with more than one billion adherents worldwide, one that is not exactly known for its emphasis on unfettered individuality. However problematic Islam might be, it's not the cause of, or even a minor contributor to, the decadence we see around us: nominal Christians, the kind who have no trouble swearing on a Bible and then ignoring what it actually says, pulled that one off all by themselves.

If I seem, to borrow my brother's emphatic pronunciation, vee-hee-ment on this score, it's because, if I may cite Bainbridge again, there's a reason why religious freedom is a "core value of American civilization." As the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us,

John Jay, of New York, who afterwards became Chief Justice of the United States, succeeded in fastening upon the Constitution of his own state a provision which denied the privilege of citizenship to every foreign-born Catholic unless he would first abjure and renounce all allegiance to the pope in matters ecclesiastical.

Bainbridge says, "When Prager says to Ellison "America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath," I hear the echoes of John Jay."

So do I.

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Dennis Babish

Roberto I have to agree with you on this.
The Founding Fathers were very sensitive to the Freedom of Religion. They were well aware what happens when a country proclaims one religion as its only religion. I believe to say this Muslim must swear on the Christian Bible or not serve in fact creates a religious test and therefore violates the Constitution. Also there is no requirement to swear on any Bible or book. George Washington did that of his own volition and thus set a precedent that most, but not all presidents, have followed. As long as this Muslim swears to uphold the Constitution of the US I say let him use whatever book he wants. I believe by doing this we strengthen the Constitution and truly show that we practice Freedom of Religion.

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