Irony in the Keith Ellison story

ellisonLet’s give a big round of applause to The Washington Post‘s gossip columnists, Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts, for cornering an ironic bit of religion news Wednesday regarding the swearing in of the first Muslim in Congress. The irony of the story was not fully fleshed out, which is a pity because there is plenty of it.

Here’s the crux of the Post story:

Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, found himself under attack last month when he announced he’d take his oath of office on the Koran — especially from Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode, who called it a threat to American values.

Yet the holy book at tomorrow’s ceremony has an unassailably all-American provenance. We’ve learned that the new congressman — in a savvy bit of political symbolism — will hold the personal copy once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

Now, Goode happens to represent the district that contains Albemarle County, the location of Jefferson’s birth. How’s that for ironic? Goode apparently didn’t feel like commenting for this story, which is not surprising considering the reverence that Virginians generally feel for President Jefferson.

But what’s even more ironic is that Argetsinger and Roberts do not mention that Jefferson once used a razor blade to the New Testament, removing its references to the supernatural but maintaining the moral teachings of Jesus Christ. Critics of Ellison, like Rep. Goode, are not likely to hold up Mr. Jefferson’s shredding of the Bible as the epitome of American religious tradition.

Another irony to consider is that Jefferson’s copy of the Koran is an English translation. A translation of the Koran is considered only for personal use and is more accurately referred to as an “interpretation.” It is technically not even a holy book.

irony2To recap, America’s first Muslim congressman is using an interpretation of the Koran owned by a man who sliced up the Bible for his swearing-in ceremony. Except that he isn’t.

Sarah Wheaton of The New York Times, in a very helpful blog post, clarifies that Ellison won’t be swearing in on anything:

Mr. Ellison is not swearing in on the Koran. And no incoming members of Congress swear in on the Bible. Everyone is sworn in together during a private ceremony without any religious text. It’s only during a ceremonial photo-op that a book may be brought out.

Well, that basically ruins all the fun. The actual swearing-in ceremony, contrary to nearly every news story on this matter, does not contain a religious element. The religious element is only included in the purely optional photo-op. How’s that for the American tradition? You can’t help but wonder why the media have not covered this story more intelligently.

I would like to suggest that the real story is the message that a Muslim-American congressman sends to the world. That’s the story reporters should be looking at.

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  • Rachel


    Americans, as a whole, are so guided by the media that there is this “mob mentality” lurking amongst us. Maybe someone could explain in detail that Islam is a peaceful religon and that it is only certain sects that promote terrorism/killing all Americans. America is such a melting pot of cultures and religons that it would seem against policy to persecute a specific group for something a small number of extremists have done. Our presence in the Middle East may not be calming to all, and maybe we shouldn’t be fighting their civil war, but there are people who live in those countries that would like to see reform to their policies and would like to learn how to depend less on precious oil and more on their other resources. Education is the key to all of this. The education process needs to begin now!! Turn your TVs off and get an opinion of your own!!

  • JOE A



  • ELC

    You can’t help but wonder why the media have not covered this story more intelligently. Try to find a story you couldn’t say that about.

    I would like to suggest that the real story is the message that a Muslim-American congressman sends to the world. Which world would that be? The multi-culti PC Western world? Or the Islamic world where fundamentalists ferment and foment? The former gets “America is a welcoming, pluralistic society” as the message. The latter gets “America is so weak they’re helping us take over” message.

  • Marc

    If I read or hear another statement that “Islam is a peacful religon(sic)” I’m going to barf!

    More media-fed garbage that some are EAGER to consume!

  • Karl

    The problem with taking an oath on the Koran is not that it is a holy book of another religion (other than Christianity), it is the fact that the Koran says that it is alright to lie. No American should ever take an oath from a book that advocates lying. Nowhere in the Bible does it say it’s alright to lie. Oh, and I’m an Atheist by the way.

  • Stan Goldfarb

    Dear Rachel:
    You suggested that “Maybe someone could explain in detail that Islam is a peaceful religon and that it is only certain sects that promote terrorism/killing all Americans.” I wonder if you could start us out by listing those “certain sects” who are the bad guys. I’m having trouble identifying them. Is it the Sunnis or the Shiites that are the bad guys? Maybe it would be easier if you could point out the peaceful sects instead, since both of those seem happy to kill Americans (and pretty much anyone else who isn’t a muslim. And even other Muslims who aren’t the same sect as them.) It’s all so confusing.

  • Dennis Colby

    Personally, every story I’ve read about this non-issue has noted that no one is sworn into Congress in a religious ceremony. That aspect of the coverage has seemed perfectly acceptable.

  • Mike

    George W Bush, by most accounts a devout Christian, swore an oath on the Bible to uphold the US Constitution. We all know how that ended up.

    The real point is that even if the swearing-in includes some sort of holy book, then the book is the least important part of the process – I don’t care what the book is, or how holy. What counts is the individual’s commitment to the oath.

  • WCW

    You comments are a disgrace to that hole outside your window and to the USA. Take your hate elsewhere.

  • Jim

    Dear Rachel,

    I would suggest a veiwing of “ISLAM What the West needs to know”. It’ll help you with that misguided vision of “ISLAM the Peaceful Religion”

  • JOE A

    don’t care what the book is, or how holy. What counts is the individual’s commitment to the oath.

    Posted by Mike at 4:23 pm on January 4, 2007




  • qrswave

    It gets even better.

    Ellison was gracious enough to kiss and makeup with Goode after the ceremony.

  • howard

    As a 74 year old, I have a long memory. It was in my lifetime that we heard the stereotypes of why negroes ought to be segregated and not given equal status in our society-that negroes could not be trusted in combat and thus they served in segregated units-how all they wanted was to rape our white women-and other absurdities too numerous to mention. And here we are so many years later, and we find that the negro just like the white man, are not perfect. Now All muslims are linked to the radical element of their culture.

    In both the old and new testament there are references to stone to death adulterers, thieves and other simple crimes so prevelent today in our society. Obviously our religious leaders do not now advocate such treatment of criminals, yet we are so quick to believe that all followers of the Koran are maniacs out to kill all infidels.

    Wake up and get the big picture. There are good and bad in every society, culture, and family (ever heard of the black sheep?).

  • JOE A

    You comments are a disgrace to that hole outside your window and to the USA. Take your hate elsewhere.

    Posted by WCW at 4:33 pm on January 4, 2007






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  • Maya

    Another bit of irony is that 50 years ago, Ellison would still be a media target based on his skin color…today, we still have our panies in a bunch because he wants to swear in on the quran, or rather because he is muslim….

    I wonder what what the american media and its fellow believers will be condemning 20 years from now. …?

    grow up people and think outside the tv box.

  • aj melo

    Islam is far from a peaceful religion.Female circumcision,honor killings of sisters on the basis of rumours and slaves.Arab Muslims in Northern Sudan still enslave there Black countrymen from the South, a religion is peaceful
    or not should be seen in how it is practiced by its followers.

  • http://None Louis Kuhelj

    What the heck does provenance of a book have to do with its contents being objectionable, due to its faulty claims? The standard for prophets was pretty high in the Old-Testament times. So much so, that if one was found to be a false one, he would be stoned to death. They had to be 100% right in their prophesy or they would be false prophets that God did not keep from error and were subject to the death penalty. The founder of Islam failed this high standard when he made the mistake of claiming that Christians believed in three gods and were therefore polytheistic and penned it in his holy book. The same book that lies about him being a prophet. We are now expected to accept an oath of office taken on the pages of a book that contains lies. Well, in that case, I guess we can expect the man who does this to live down to that standard very nicely. Heck, I can live up to that one without straining a single fiber of my moral muscle.

  • Sarah Webber

    Please, folks, this is not the place to argue the validity of Islam or Christianity nor who was responsible for 9/11.

    What I would like to know is why Ellison isn’t using an official copy of the Koran. Surely we have some of those in the Library of Congress.

  • Alexei

    Oh, how your faithful readers long for the editorial winnowing fan.

  • Harris

    The other part of the story left uncovered is that Ellison’s is a conversion story.

    As some of the comments here indicate, there is a wide conflation of Islam with its more particular cultural expressions. What is interesting here is that the Congressman grew up in a progressive home, and then found a home in Islam where some of those same themes of justice continue.

    We like our conversion stories when they’re Christian; here is one that could have used more exploration.

  • Peter

    Sarah, are you prepared to police which version of the Bible Christians use, or what verson of holy scripture Jews use? Surely it is for Ellison to say which version of his holy book he finds appropriate?

    I think that it is sad that it is “news” that Ellison is Muslim, rather than a simple fact. However, given that it is, his choice of book for his photo op being news follows from that. Heck, what people wear to these things counts as news.

    I think the media in general should be ashamed of how much coverage they gave the “he shouldn’t be allowed to use the Koran” people. Not the least because had he used a Bible, many of the same people would have shouted “blasphemy” and had he chosen to use no book, they would have shouted “godless heathen.”

  • Andy

    There’s another angle to this story that I haven’t seen. In the introduction to the Beacon Press edition of “The Jefferson Bible,” Forrest Church, the son of US Senator Frank Church, mentions that his father received a copy of the book at his swearing-in ceremony “as had been the custom since 1904.”

    Does anyone know whether this still happens? Church was first inducted to the Senate in 1957. Maybe it was a Unitarian thing, but the younger Church seems to imply that it was the custom for all senators to receive a Jefferson Bible. Who gave/gives them out? Can anyone help with this?

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  • Not a Republocrat

    “Please, folks, this is not the place to argue the validity of Islam or Christianity nor who was responsible for 9/11.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

    This is about Ellison exercising his Constitutional right to swear an oath on a book he considers sacred. Furthermore, the ceremony in question was purely symbolic and functions as little more than a photo-op.

    It seems that our First Amendment has been forgotten as Americans bicker amongst themselves, beating each other over the head with obscure Bible passages while they clamor for the moral high ground. Religion has NO PLACE in American politics.

    Think of why our founding fathers fought to establish our nation in the first place; think of the ideals they held. Our country was FOUNDED on the concept of religious freedom. Bearing that in mind, some of the comments on this thread are truly disturbing.

    “Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.” – Thomas Jefferson

  • Paul Barnes

    For me, this (non)issue is simply a religious liberty one. For those who do not allow the ‘swearing in’ (as explained in this post) do not really believe in religious liberty.

    Sure, American culture is predominantly Christian (moreso than almost any Muslim country out there) but there are around two million Muslims in America. I would say that they deserve representation. That is the democratic thing to do.

    Returning to my religious liberty part, while there may not be a significant body of thought in Islam (yet) for substantial democratic ideology, the same was perceived for Catholics and JFK. Today, harldy anyone would accuse most Catholic politicians of being influenced by Church teaching regarding policies (except the bogeyman religious right). Basically, I do not see any reason to worry about Mr. Ellison because of his religion.

  • Jerry

    Please, folks, this is not the place to argue the validity of Islam or Christianity nor who was responsible for 9/11.

    I also heartily agree. But I’ll add one point – translations English translations of the Quran can differ quite markedly in meaning.

    Ellison was using Jefferson’s copy of the Quran to send a message. I hope that message is received by those who don’t know the full history of Islam, both positive and negative.

    And may God grant that hearts that are filled with hate instead turn toward His message of Love.

  • Joe

    Is it right to even consider Ellison as Muslim? I thought he belonged to the “Nation of Islam”, which I’m not sure I would consider Islamic but rather a racist cult. As a comparison, consider Mitt Romney. Many evangelicals would not consider him “Christian” but Mormon or LDS or worse (in a cult).

  • MJBubba

    Perhaps of interest to readers of this blog, the Columbia Journalism Review took a look at coverage of Ellison during the campaign. They criticized the lack of coverage of Ellison’s spiritual history. This article reveals that Ellison is a “moderate Sunni,” with “past ties to the Nation of Islam.”

    Regarding the Islam questions related to peace or violence, my old text says there are four major schools of thought within Sunni Islam, and the 2005 summit in Jordan referred to seven schools of Sunni Islam. Wikipedia says that there are five methodologies of Sharia interpretation in Sunni Islam. I would like to see some mainstream, readily available media source report on which of these, if any, renounce violence as a way to spread Islam, and if the generally-recognized spokesmen for any of these factions (denominations?) would be content for large numbers of Muslims to live at peace in a mixed-religion society.

  • Jerry

    > generally-recognized spokesmen for any of these factions (denominations?)

    That, of course, is one of the key issues. Islam forbids a priesthood, although one exists de facto for Shi’as and for many Sunni. The major schools have to do with commonly accepted interpretations of Islamic law. Such interpretations, fatwas, are very much in the news usually associated with the writings of non-scholars such as bin Laden. To get a picture of how Islam answers certain issues, I recommend the fatwa database and el Fadl’s writings.

    My personal reading list and group of web sites on Islam includes these and others that I’ve found helpful:

    An American Muslim’s view on Islam:

    AlJazeera’s English web site:

    The books of Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, specifically “Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women”. It’s academically oriented but shows how an Islamic jurist reasons.

    The mystical side of Islam, Sufism: The books of Rumi and Hafiz.

    An overview of one Islamist organization: Hizb ut-Tahrir: – also read the ‘discussion’ page.

    An online ‘fatwa’ database – search on terrorism, for example.

    Book: “The Wisdom of Muhammad” – selected sayings.

    Council on American Islamic Relations:

    An overview of Islam’s history “Islam”, by Karen Armstrong

    An introduction to Islam:

    6 translations of the Quran:

  • Dennis Colby


    Ellison has never been a member of the Nation of Islam. He helped organize the Million Man March, but has since engaged in exhaustive, repeated denunciations of Farrakhan, et al.

  • Jerry

    Sigh. I thought I had posted some info but I guess I forgot to hit submit.

    I would like to see some mainstream, readily available media source report on which of these, if any, renounce violence as a way to spread Islam, and if the generally-recognized spokesmen for any of these factions (denominations?)

    That question gets to the heart of why this blog exists, of course. Having complete and bias free reporting of Islam is less likely than abortion in my judgment. That is why I often don’t rely on the media but do my own research. Asking who is a generally recognized spokesmen for Islam is like asking who is such for Evangelical Christianity – it’s a non-trivial question especially considering that Islam is not supposed to have a priesthood, although we see some who are or claim to be de facto priests.

    I’d recommend the reading the Keith Ellison post on the OnFaith blog along with the dialog that follows. I found the voices of Muslims answering questions and accusations to be very interesting.

    I’d also recommend looking at one online ‘fatwa’ (religious ruling) database for topics such as terrorism since you’ll read views of religious scholars on critical topics:

    I also recommend the works of Professor Khaled About El Fadl, specifically “Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women” because it is a reasoned view of how Islamic law should work and has too often broken down in modern times.

  • Gary

    Ellison was a member of the Nation of Islam for ten years.

  • Kevin P. Edgecomb

    It matters not at all what any of these people decide to hold in their “swearing-in” photo opportunity, faking an oath-taking already completed elsewhere. One may as well hold the Complete Calvin and Hobbes. It’s only for a commemorative photograph, for heaven’s sake.

    Someone should be going after Rep. Goode, who will certainly have known, having been previously sworn in himself, that the books held in these photos are not sworn upon. He should be called to explain himself to his sovereigns, we the people.

  • Jennifer Emick

    Couple of points:

    First: “Nowhere in the Bible does it say it’s alright to lie. ”

    This is not true- The great Apostle Paul himself defends his own prevarications in an ends justify the means argument.

    Second: The real unasked question in this story is Ellison’s Muslim status- he’s technically about as Muslim as Madonna is Jewish, ie, he’s a member of Nation of Islam, which diverges sharply from normative Islam in numerous ways, not the least of which is its forays into UFO theology. Their claims that WHM was the Mahdi and God incarnate is another serious stumbling block.

  • Jennifer Emick

    Oops…on further checking, mit would seem he’s rejecting the NOL now, which was not the case when I last read about his religious activities. In any case, would still make an interesting discussion given his once very vocal support of Farrakhan.

  • DrJay1941

    As both a pastor in a progressive denomination and as one with an earned doctorate in Arabic and Islamic studies, I find the general ignorance of Islam and of Christianity on a par with each other. Karen Armstrong’s books related to Islam are pretty fair presentations, and for a contemporary European Muslim expression, see Tariq Ramadan’s Western Muslims and the Future of Islam.

  • Nancy

    I believe Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode initiated his criticism after receiving email from his constituents who had read a column by Dennis Prager. A subsequent column by Prager, relevant to this discussion, can be found here:
    Dennis Prager – A resonse to my many critics and a solution

  • shade

    Can anyone claim with a straight face that Christianity is a religion of peace?

  • mjbubba

    Shade, Your question is a distraction from the GetReligion blog purpose, but here is a simple answer. Compared to Islam, yes, definitely, Christianity teaches Peace, both on the basis of the teachings of Bible (plus orthodox fathers) v. Quran (plus Hadith), and also on the basis of the historical record.

  • Scott Allen

    Jennifer Emick,
    You state that “The great Apostle Paul himself defends his own prevarications in an ends justify the means argument.”
    Could you please provide the Bible chapter and verse? Thanks.

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  • Susannah
  • Gregory R. Reed

    Islam itself isn’t the problem here: There are plenty of equally vicious passages in the Bible and Torah for anybody who cares to observe them. What bothers fundamentalist Muslims is the encroachment of modernity on their ancient barbarism. As with modern-day fundamentalist Christians, Muslim fundamentalists haven’t learned to gloss over the uglier passages in their mythology’s directives. But unlike the West, where civilization as a whole is intolerant of violent extremism, Muslim extremists still enjoy broad public support.

    And if Muslim fundamentalists resented the encroachment of modernity *before* 9/11 enough to commit the atrocities of that day, imagine how much more they resent the encroachment of modernity when it’s patrolling their streets with tanks and guns.

    It doesn’t take a seasoned diplomat to recognize that beating people over the head with a sledge hammer is unlikely to endear them to us.

    Our ultimate goal needs to be for violent Muslim fundamentalists to be equally ostracized within their communities as violent Christian fundamentalists are within our own communities. We’ll never get there by giving the Muslim communities reasons to embrace their violent fundamentalists (like resisting an invasion by us wicked infidels, for instance).

    We *had* an opportunity to turn mainstream Muslims against the violent fundamentalists living among them in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The entire world was aghast at these extremists’ actions. But rather than seize that opportunity to embrace non-violent Muslims in a coordinated effort to root out the extremists, we instead chose to attack the entirety of Muslim civilization. Which, of course, had the opposite effect of uniting all of Islam together — against us. Great move.

    And today, the very idiot mindset that thought invading Iraq would spread democracy and love of the West is sowing still more seeds of resentment by attacking Congressman Ellison. Another great move. Let us just assume for a moment that Congressman Ellison is a non-violent moderate Muslim, as opposed to a violent fundamentalist Muslim. If this is the case, then he is exactly the sort of Muslim we want to be supporting. Unless, of course, we actually are the intolerant bigots the world seems to think us to be.

    I once thought that, in a country of about 300 million people — many of whom are presumably knowledgeable about Middle Eastern history and diplomacy — we would come up with a foreign policy that *at least* doesn’t make us worse off than doing nothing at all. I remain astonished at just how wrong I was.