Let’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.
To 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.