Theocracy Watch VIII: Religious Tests

Meet Keith Ellison:

Ellison is one of the new Democratic representatives elected in the November midterms, the winner of an open seat in Minnesota’s 5th District. Representative-elect Ellison is also a Muslim, the first member of that religion ever to be elected to the United States Congress. As such, when he takes his oath of office, he intends to do so on a copy of the Qur’an.

And there the story would end… in a world more rational than our own. In our world, the religious right, still smarting from its electoral trouncing and looking for a new scapegoat to fix its perpetual fury on, has attacked Ellison angrily. Dennis Prager of the right-wing site Townhall.com wrote a column saying that Ellison “should not be allowed” to do this, because the act “undermines American civilization” and, if permitted, would “do[] more damage to… this country than the terrorists of 9/11″ (source). The reliably bigoted American Family Association took this ball and ran with it, and is now urging its followers to ask their elected representatives “to pass a law making the Bible the book used in the swearing-in ceremony of Representatives and Senators” (source).

This is theocracy in its purest form: the belief that America has one official religion, or one official holy book, that should be granted a favored place in law, with all other religions and scriptures legally shut out. Advocating such a position is one of the most un-American acts possible and contradicts all that our country stands for. Happily, this stupidity stands no chance of seeing the light of day – not just because we now have a Democratic Congress, but because any judge qualified for the position would strike down such a law in two seconds. Since Prager and the American Family Association evidently have never read the Constitution, allow me to provide them with some remedial education. Here is Article VI:

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.

No religious test shall ever be required.” How much clearer can you get? The Constitution singles out this practice and bans it by name, not even in an amendment, but in the original articles themselves. There is no room whatsoever here for ambiguity or debate. Requiring that all politicians swear on a Bible to take office is the definition of a religious test, and as such, it is absolutely illegal in the United States of America. It has never been clearer just how starkly the principles upon which this country was built are in direct opposition to everything that small-minded theocratic bigots like the AFA stand for.

In fact, the swearing-in ceremony mandated by the Constitution does not even use a Bible. As the above passage shows, it consists solely of an “oath or affirmation” to support the Constitution. No Bible or other holy book is mentioned anywhere in this article, and none is needed or necessary. Its use is simply a tradition and has no status in law, and individual politicians are free to disregard it if they choose. In fact, as Robin Marty of the Minnesota Monitor adeptly points out, non-Christian elected officials have used their own scriptures before (Prager’s assertions to the contrary are flat-out wrong), and at least four presidents did not take their oaths of office on a Bible.

Prager derides the use of the Qur’an as an “act of hubris” that “perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism — my culture trumps America’s culture”. What he refuses to understand is that America’s culture is not based on the Bible in any legal sense. On the contrary, it is based on the very principle Ellison intends to uphold, the principle of individual freedom to choose which religion one will practice. That, not the most radical and ignorant wing of Christianity, is the true “unifying value system” to which Prager refers that “underlies American civilization”.

Prager wonders,

Devotees of multiculturalism and political correctness who do not see how damaging to the fabric of American civilization it is to allow Ellison to choose his own book need only imagine a racist elected to Congress. Would they allow him to choose Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” the Nazis’ bible, for his oath? And if not, why not? On what grounds will those defending Ellison’s right to choose his favorite book deny that same right to a racist who is elected to public office?

The answer is simple: If a racist was elected to Congress, then no, there is no constitutional means to forbid them from taking the oath of office on a copy of Mein Kampf. In America we do not and cannot outlaw speech just because we disagree with it, no matter how repugnant or vile the ideas which that speech advocates may be. On the other hand, if an outspoken racist legitimately was elected to Congress, then I think America would have far more serious problems than which book that person chose to take the oath of office on.

* * *

On the lighter side, a recent post on Americans United’s blog titled Falwell’s Flub brought my attention to an amusing story. It seems that the public schools in Albemarle County, Virginia, have a “backpack mail” program where teachers put fliers announcing local events in students’ backpacks. The father of two students in the school wanted to use this program to distribute literature about his church’s vacation Bible school. (I note, parenthetically, that many evangelical Christians share one very rude trait with spammers: their relentless effort to invade any public forum and turn it to their own uses, even if the forum was not created for such a purpose.) When the school denied this request, Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Counsel legal group threatened to sue, and the school backed down.

But America has no official religion, and if such an opportunity is open to one religious group, it must be open to all. Now Albemarle County students are coming home with fliers inviting them to attend a pagan celebration of the winter holidays, thanks to a shrewd local Unitarian church. Predictably, the local conservative Christians have suddenly acquired an understanding of why separating church and state is important. One such blogger, mentioned in the AU article but not cited, fumes that this is an “educational experience my children don’t need”, and announces, “I don’t know – yet – what to do or who to talk to but I will not step aside.”

Allow me to advise you, ma’am: I suggest you contact Americans United for Separation of Church and State. After all, to be perfectly frank, they saw the value of church-state separation long before you did. Isn’t it amusing that the same Christian groups who work so hard to establish religion in government so quickly wise up to the unfairness of it all when the beliefs that end up being established are not the ones they would have preferred?

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Paul

    Can anyone find a conservative/religious blog or web site that has taken on these constitutional issues and have argued their case? I’d love to see any rational argument against the use of the Koran Ellison, as I can’t imagine any.

  • http://del.icio.us/sporkyy Todd Sayre

    I’d love to see any rational argument against the use of the Koran Ellison, as I can’t imagine any.

    I can think of several. Though they would all argue that no holy books should be used as props in governmental ceremonies, not just the Koran. And that probably isn’t what you meant.

    I find it ironic that these conservatives have got half a clue on this matter. They rightly think “this guy has no business injecting his religion into our government”. But they then explain how, by their reckoning, “this guy should be injecting my religion into our government”. I’d like to think that isn’t all too far from “this guy should be injecting nobody’s religion into government”, but I’m just not that good at deluding myself.

  • NonProphet

    The anecdote about the backpack mail is beautiful. I remember reading a similar story about an evangelical who was all for public prayers before football games… until he was stationed in Hawaii and had to sit through a Buddhist one. Here’s the link: http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=46828 My apologies if it was in one of your posts I read it!

  • http://www.dangerousintersection.org Erich Vieth

    You should have heard fundamentalist syndicated talk radio host Paul McGuire fuming over the Keith Ellison election and swearing-in. I heard his rant tonight while I drove home from work.

    It’s the beginning of the end, he told his listeners. The country is being invaded by people NOT LIKE US.

    “It’s about time,” I muttered to myself.

  • http://vishnuvyas.wordpress.com Vishnu Vyas

    If an atheist ever got into the senate/congress what would he take his oath on?

  • Chris Beardsley

    That would be the choice of the electee- I would chose “On the Origin of Species”.

  • Freeyourmind

    “Isn’t it amusing that the same Christian groups who work so hard to establish religion in government so quickly wise up to the unfairness of it all when the beliefs that end up being established are not the ones they would have preferred?”

    *Applause*

  • andrea

    Write your senators and representatives about this. I did!

  • Shawn Smith

    If an atheist ever got into the senate/congress what would he take his oath on?

    How about the Constitution, or maybe the Declaration of Independence?

  • Christopher

    Do you suppose that we’ll now see an influx of Christians into the serparation of church and state movement? Or will they quickly forget this lesson when the current crisis passes?

  • andrea

    hardly. Denial is a wonderful thing.

  • Archi Medez

    As such, when he takes his oath of office, he intends to do so on a copy of the Qur’an.
    And there the story would end… in a world more rational than our own.

    No, in a rational world people would not even consider making a decision so ludicrous to be swearing in on either the Bible or the Koran.
    For rational critics who live in a predominantly irrational society, to actually read the Koran and find out whether there is cause for concern in such a “swearing in with Koran,” seems to be a rational move. Given that the Koran (9:29) mandates warfare ostensively in the name of religion against Christians, Jews, and other Non-Muslims (also see 9:5) and is now, and has always been, understood as mandating such by all major schools of Islamic jurisprudence, which make up the majority of the U.S. population, I think it is reasonable to be concerned about someone swearing in on such a document. The Koran asserts that Islam must dominate over all religions (9:33), and that Muslims must fight until all religion is for Allah (8:39).

    What are Ellison’s views on all of this now, today? Does he accept those injunctions against the majority of Americans today, or does he view those injunctions as historically-specific commands that have no place in our society today? Until we have answers to such questions, no, the story should not end. On the contrary, we should be highly skeptical, highly suspect of his motives, and certainly no less so than Christian theocrats.

    “No religious test shall ever be required.” How much clearer can you get?
    Americans are fortunate to have that statement in their Constitution. However, swearing in on a Koran is not merely a religious test. It is a political test. The Koran is, in its substance, a political and legal book (albeit a highly ambiguous, vaguely-worded one). It asserts that anyone who judges law by any other standard than “Allah’s” is a wrong-doer, disbeliever, etc. In Islam, merely being a “disbeliever” is considered a crime (not merely a ‘sin” but an actual criminal offence—indeed, the worst crime in Islam is disbelief and the penalty for apostasy today according to islamic jurisprudence is generally death) that must be punished at the very least with subjugation in accordance with 9:29 and the policy of subjugation now known as dhimmitude. Furthermore, the Koran is a document of Islamic supremacy, asserting that those who believe in Islam are “not equal” to those who disbelieve it (32:18); those who believe in Islam are the best of creatures (98:7) and that those who do not believe in Islam are the worst of creatures (98:6). The Koran promotes a quasi-racial notion of “cleanliness,” whereby non-Muslims and especially those regarded as polytheists, are unclean (najisun, 9:28). The Koran orders Muslim men to beat their wives from whom they “fear disobedience” (4:34). The Koran permits Muslim men to have slave-girls for sex, (4:24, 70:29-30, 23:5-6) in addition to their multiple wives (4:3), and takes for granted the legality of marriage to pre-pubescent girls in its divorce rulings (65:4). The Koran stipulates that Muslim males must inherit twice what their female siblings inherit (4:11). Islam forbids any free expressions that are in any way critical of Islam or Muhammad (again, the penalties are severe, including death).

    “On the contrary, it is based on the very principle Ellison intends to uphold, the principle of individual freedom to choose which religion one will practice.”

    We don’t know that Ellison intends to uphold individual freedom to choose which religion one will practice. For example, what are his views in regard to people of so-called “non-Abrahamic” faiths (i.e., basically everything other than Islam, Christianity, and Judaism)? We know what Islamic orthodoxy and the Koran say (i.e., there is no religious freedom in any meaningful sense of the phrase). So, what is Ellison’s interpretation of the Islamic scriptures? How does he explain away the hate, insults, discrimination, and conflict in the Koran? Does he take some kind of approach like liberal Christians and shrug it all off as metaphorical, historically-specific, etc.? Until I have answers to these questions, I think it is quite reasonable to be concerned about Ellison being a member of a highly political “religion” that is so contrary in its core princples to the U.S. Constitution and the values of free countries generally.

    We also need to know if there is any substance to allegations that Ellison is a former member of the black supremacist Nation of Islam, and whether he is (or was) involved in any illicit dealings with CAIR (which has known terrorist connections).
    Until such issues have been investigated, and until we have clear answers to these questions, the fact that Ellison has sworn in on a Koran is hardly cause for celebration (and I’m not saying that anyone here is celebrating the swearing in on the Koran).

  • Archi Medez

    “Given that the Koran (9:29) mandates warfare ostensively in the name of religion against Christians, Jews, and other Non-Muslims (also see 9:5) and is now, and has always been, understood as mandating such by all major schools of Islamic jurisprudence, which make up the majority of the U.S. population, I think it is reasonable to be concerned about someone swearing in on such a document.”

    My apologies for the tangled run-on sentence. My point was that the majority of the U.S. population is Christian, Jewish, or otherwise non-Muslim, yet the Koran mandates warfare against non-Muslims. Hence my concern about Ellison swearing in on the document that contains that mandate.

  • andrea

    The Bible insists that everyone who isn’t the Jewish or in the NT, Christian, be damned to hell or stoned to death etc, etc. And just as many offensive verses about women and cleanliness etc, etc. I don’t see why your knickers are in a knot over one religious/legal/cultural book over another.

  • Chris

    Archi Medez: Those concerns ought to have been raised on the campaign trail, so that the voters could make a decision on their validity. (You do remember democracy, right?) Certainly the Koran contains some passages I find odious; but I could quote you as bad or worse out of the Bible and the Torah, to say nothing of the historical acts of all three Abrahamic religions. (Four if you count Mormonism as a separate religion and not a form of Christianity.) I don’t know whether Ellison personally believes in any of that agenda, is just paying lip service to a cultural tradition he was raised in, or somewhere in between. All that is beside the point, because we have a no religious test clause. If the voters of Ellison’s district don’t think his religion is sufficient reason to deny him office, we shouldn’t try to second-guess them.

    I would prefer if we had an electorate that would reject any politician whose agenda is based on *any* sacred scripture (they wouldn’t even have to be atheists, just people who respect the principle that government shouldn’t take sides in religious disputes – and for all I know Ellison himself may be in this category), but we don’t, and attempting to close the barn door to Islam while Christianity has already stolen the horse is absurd. And unconstitutional.

    You can’t construct an argument that it’s OK to swear on the Bible but not the Koran without, at some level, arguing that the Bible is *better* than the Koran – which is a type of argument government is expressly forbidden to engage in, by the Constitution and basic principles of religious freedom. Don’t you find it odd to be more concerned about one Muslim in the House than about five hundred or so Christians? If not, why not?

  • Archi Medez

    Andrea says: “The Bible insists that everyone who isn’t the Jewish or in the NT, Christian, be damned to hell or stoned to death etc, etc. And just as many offensive verses about women and cleanliness etc, etc. I don’t see why your knickers are in a knot over one religious/legal/cultural book over another.”

    Actually “knickers are in a knot” in regards to both texts, or, more accurately, the fact that people still follow these texts today. As I said, in a rational society, neither Bible nor Koran would be used in the swearing in process. The topic in this thread deals with swearing in on the Koran. I am addressing that topic. If the topic were swearing in on the Bible, I’d address that topic, and explain why doing so is problematic.

    Chris says: “Those concerns ought to have been raised on the campaign trail, so that the voters could make a decision on their validity. (You do remember democracy, right?)”

    It is ridiculous for you to imply that I am somehow not observant of democracy, just for asking some reasonable questions. Democracy requires people to be well-informed. The sorts of questions I’ve raised should have been raised and thoroughly investigated, but were they? Not that I’m aware of. On the other hand, if you know the answers to my questions, then please do inform.

    “Certainly the Koran contains some passages I find odious; but I could quote you as bad or worse out of the Bible and the Torah, to say nothing of the historical acts of all three Abrahamic religions. (Four if you count Mormonism as a separate religion and not a form of Christianity.)”

    Your point is what? Again, it is reasonable to object, as a matter of opinion, to anyone who would swear in on either the Bible or the Koran, since both documents are full of hate and contain propositions that are contrary to the principles contained in the Constitution. In this case, the issue was over swearing in on the Koran. The Koran contains statements that are contrary to the constitution and American law. I’m pointing a few of them out by citing them.

    “I don’t know whether Ellison personally believes in any of that agenda, is just paying lip service to a cultural tradition he was raised in, or somewhere in between. All that is beside the point, because we have a no religious test clause. If the voters of Ellison’s district don’t think his religion is sufficient reason to deny him office, we shouldn’t try to second-guess them.”

    On the contrary, if the voters have mistakenly elected someone who does not truly represent their views, then we have a problem, and yes, we should be concerned, and we should continue to examine this case until the issues are clarified.

    In addition, as I mentioned in my post, Islam is not merely a religion. It is a political ideology and legal system. Now, you may object to Christians injecting their theocratic views into politics and law. So do I; and I also object to Muslims injecting their theocratically-based views into politics and law.

    “I would prefer if we had an electorate that would reject any politician whose agenda is based on *any* sacred scripture (they wouldn’t even have to be atheists, just people who respect the principle that government shouldn’t take sides in religious disputes – and for all I know Ellison himself may be in this category), but we don’t, and attempting to close the barn door to Islam while Christianity has already stolen the horse is absurd. And unconstitutional.”

    It would be absurd if that’s what I’d claimed, but I didn’t claim that. I said neither the Bible nor the Koran should be used for swearing in–a personal opinion.

    “You can’t construct an argument that it’s OK to swear on the Bible but not the Koran without, at some level, arguing that the Bible is *better* than the Koran”

    I didn’t make that argument; nor do I agree with it (i.e., swearing in on one versus the other). As I said, my opinion is that neither the Bible nor the Koran (nor, indeed, any religious text) should be used in the swearing in process.

    “- which is a type of argument government is expressly forbidden to engage in, by the Constitution and basic principles of religious freedom.”

    I’m not the government, and I’m not forbidden from making such an argument if I chose to do so, by the principle of freedom of expression.

    “Don’t you find it odd to be more concerned about one Muslim in the House than about five hundred or so Christians? If not, why not?”

    First of all, in regards to the American situation, I do not perceive one Muslim in the House as being a bigger problem than the general theocratic Christian trend. Indeed, I think Mr. Ellison has probably benefited from the whole “religious, therefore good” assumption on the part of largely Christian voters (who are much more likely to vote for a Muslim than an atheist). Nevertheless, the issue is not what I perceive to be the bigger threat. The topic of this thread is Keith Ellison’s choice to swear in on the Koran. I am addressing that topic and, in doing so, believe that it is appropriate to cite relevant verses from the Koran which are contrary to the constitution.

  • Shawn Smith

    Archi Medez,

    Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars brought up similar points on his blog here. There are some interesting comments in that second link, which offer some suggestions as to how a free society might prevent itself from being destroyed by elements in that society using the society’s freedoms against it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    If an atheist ever got into the senate/congress what would he take his oath on?

    Personally, I wouldn’t take the oath on anything; I’d just raise my hand and affirm it. The idea that people will somehow be prevented from lying by placing their hands on a book strikes me as rank superstition. Either the voters should trust their candidate to do what is right based on the candidate’s own integrity, or they shouldn’t vote for that person at all.

    No, in a rational world people would not even consider making a decision so ludicrous to be swearing in on either the Bible or the Koran.

    That’s a good point, Archi Medez, and one I didn’t think of myself. Maybe I can say in my own defense that I was only referring to a world more rational than ours, not maximally rational. :)

    I share your concern over Ellison’s rumored connections to disreputable groups. But the voters put him in office knowing who he is and what he believes, so I think he at least deserves a chance to show that he doesn’t share the evil, theocratic beliefs held by so many members of his faith. If it turns out he does, then that is a problem and I will join any right-wing politician or pundit in condemning him (just as I condemn Christian politicians who interpret literally the similarly odious statements in their holy text). Fortunately, in either case we have a Constitution that protects American citizens from the theocratic depredations of elected officials, no matter what faith they belong to.

  • http://beepbeepitsme.blogspot.com/ beepbeepitsme

    What’s interesting about “oath taking” on any book, religious or not, is that it is no guarantee that the person taking the oath will tell the truth. People who are going to lie are going to lie regardless of which book, or no book, that they lay their hand on. People who are going to tell the truth, are also most probably going to tell the truth regardless of book, or no book.

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  • NightShadeQueen

    If an atheist ever got into the senate/congress what would he take his oath on?

    On the off chance I get elected to anything, I’d swear upon the index book of an encyclopedia.

  • bipolar2

    There is no religious requirement for taking an oath of office. The wording of some oaths is specified in the Constitution. The unfortunate precedent set by Washington of taking his oath of office with hand on a xian sacred text was also echoed in his calling for ‘a day of prayer.’ Jefferson didn’t think much of the latter.

    Consider that the Constitution allows for “freedom of conscience” that is the right to worship some god(s), or be a non-theist, or atheist. Moreover, the US is not a xian *state* — it is a secular state.