Ghosts in Brennan’s Constitution oath?

Various media reported that new CIA chief John O. Brennan swore his oath of office last week on a Constitution that didn’t contain the Bill of Rights. And, given his strenuous support of the U.S. drone program — which has killed thousands of people, including a few Americans — stories focused on the lack of the fifth amendment’s guarantee of due process. But I wonder if there wasn’t a religion angle there. I’m honestly not sure. Here’s how The Guardian wrote up the news:

CIA director John Brennan swore the oath of office Friday on an original copy of the constitution, the White House announced, which at first sounds pretty cool.

Better than a Bible – everybody does the Bible. The copy is from 1787, and it apparently has George Washington’s personal handwriting and annotations on it and everything. They keep it in a protective manila folder, visible in an official photo of the moment.

So far, so charming – except for one detail:

The founders were quick about the Bill of Rights, ratifying them in 1791. But the constitution was passed without them. A pre-ratification draft of the constitution certainly would not have included them. The fifth amendment’s guarantee of due process before the law? Brennan’s wife’s not holding it and Brennan ain’t swearing on it.

It’s not like the document you swear on matters. None who swear on the Bible are bound thereby to keep the sabbath. You could swear on Our Bodies, Our Selves, probably. The book is just a symbol that the oath-taker is being serious.

As a symbol, though, in this particular case, given that the oath-taker is the man in charge of choosing those people who don’t qualify for due process but instead must be executed immediately – in this case it might not have hurt to stick a copy of amendment number five in there.

Obviously not everyone “does” the Bible when swearing or affirming an oath. And swearing on Our Bodies, Our Selves might not be a symbol that you’re being serious. But is the only interesting aspect here that Brennan swore or affirmed (I’m not sure which) on an original copy of the Constitution?

I’m not talking about the conspiracy theories swirling about some dark alleys of the internet. They originate, I believe, from former FBI agent John Guandolo. He says that Brennan “secretly” converted to Islam while he was stationed in Saudi Arabia. Some might say that the media should have covered this allegation but allegations of dramatically “secret” conversions need much more substantiation for media attention. Particularly when you’re talking about a former spy.

Further, while some conspiracy theorists seem to think that conversion to Islam is sufficient for its own news stories (secret or otherwise), journalists should make sure that digging into a public official’s religious views has a reason.

We discussed a bit of this with the rather curious instance of a New York Times reporter asking another reporter whether he was a Coptic Christian and whether this influenced his reporting (on the State Department almost celebrating a Muslim woman from Egypt who had made anti-Semitic and pro-9/11 remarks).

Many things influence our judgments, including our religious views, but some work is best assessed on its own merits. Does a CIA chief’s religion influence his work? How? Is it an important part of the story to tell about someone? To me it seems just as relevant to report a CIA chief’s religious views if he’s Catholic (as Brennan is or was at least some time in his past) or if he’s converted to Islam or if he’s not terribly religious at all. No matter what the views are, they’re interesting to me — but I wouldn’t want just one covered, as if it’s “wrong” to be Muslim but OK to be irreligious or Catholic.

Leaving me further unconvinced about the conspiracy theory is that it’s claimed to be substantiated partially because of statements that Brennan made about Hajj:

I did spend time with classmates at the American University in Cairo in the 1970’s. And, time spent with classmates from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine from around the world who taught me that whatever our differences in nationality, or race, or religion, or language, there are certain aspirations that we all share. To get an education. To provide for our family. To practice our faith freely. To live in peace and security. And in a 25 year career in government, I was privileged to serve in positions across the Middle East… In Saudi Arabia, I saw how our Saudi partners fulfilled their duty as custodians of the two holy mosques at Mecca and Medina. I marveled at the majesty of the Hajj and the devotion of those who fulfilled their duty as Muslims by making that pilgrimage. And, in all my travels the city I have come to love most is al-Quds, Jerusalem where three great faiths come together.

You can watch him make those comments here:

These comments made a bit of a splash a couple of years ago because of how he referred to Jerusalem first as “al-Quds.” But for those speculating on Brennan being Muslim, the most interesting statement was: “In Saudi Arabia, I saw how our Saudi partners fulfilled their duty as custodians of the two holy mosques at Mecca and Medina. I marveled at the majesty of the Hajj and the devotion of those who fulfilled their duty as Muslims by making that pilgrimage.” Only Muslims can witness the Hajj. To quote WikiTravel:

WARNING: The Hajj is intended for Muslims only, and the territory around Mecca and Medina is off-limits to non-Muslims. If you are a non-Muslim and you do manage to enter anyway, it is considered sacrilege and, if discovered, the penalty can be a prison sentence and deportation. But since any person can convert to Islam, any person may enter Mecca and Medina upon entering the fold of Islam thus becoming a Muslim.

It is of course possible that Brennan is Muslim and completed the Hajj. But it’s also possible that when he said he “marveled” at the majesty of it, he may have just meant from what he saw in pictures.

OK, back to the story about swearing in on the Constitution. I do wonder whether there’s a religion story here, even if it’s not the one alleged by “secret conversion” conspiracy theorists.

Could it just be that the CIA chief, who has spent much time in Muslim lands and whose work involves quite a bit of spying (and more!) on Muslim extremists just didn’t want to be pictured with Christian Scriptures because it might be inflammatory? Or is there secret spy stuff where it’s best to have some ambiguity about religious views (about which I’d love more journalism on the ethics of spying!)? Did he want to avoid Christian critics asking him whether his views on drone warfare contradict anything in Scripture?

All a long way of asking: Did the brouhaha about the original Constitution with no Bill of Rights miss an interesting religion angle? Should the media be interested in Brennan’s religious views? Even if only in stories about the justice of drone warfare, in which Brennan has played a huge role, I think journalists should have asked some questions about how his religion guides him. No matter his religious views, I think that line of inquiry is most interesting for those interested in the ethics of drone warfare.

Photo credit: David Lienemann / The White House

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  • Martha

    It’s certainly a fascinating detail; one might almost say, a sterling instance of civil religion (using the Constitution as your sacred book or sacred verses?)

    I hate to contradict “The Guardian” but the original purpose of swearing on the Bible was not merely to symbolise that you were being serious about taking an oath; it was calling God to witness that you were speaking the truth and binding yourself to fulfil your vow under pain of damnation. Perjury was a sin before it was a crime.

    That’s the reason why Quakers (for one) refused to swear oaths; they followed the precept in Matthew 5: 34-37 ” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

    And that’s also why freethinkers and atheists lobbied for the right to make an affirmation instead of swearing an oath. So I don’t know if this action with a copy of the Constitution is more than a photo-opportunity and piece of political theatre, but I agree – there’s definitely a religion ghost there!

    • Martha

      I see by searching online that John Quincy Adams took the oath at his inauguration by swearing on a book of law (with the intention of swearing by/on the Constitution), so could this be the precedent John Brennan is following?

  • Jerry

    You did not write what he actually said about the choice. And, to be fair, that has not been widely reported as far as I can see. But I did find a reference online. I’m referencing the site “” here:

    The story cites a report by the Christian Post that states the copy of the Constitution that Brennan used was an original draft that included President George Washington’s personal handwriting, and was dated in 1787.
    Brennan requested this specific document because he,
    “…wanted to reaffirm his commitment to the rule of law as he took the oath of office as director of the CIA.”
    Brown commented that the idea of using the Constitution was,
    “…a pretty good statement from a man who is responsible for much of the nation’s security. Commitment to constitutional principles and laws is imperative for all governmental office-holders.” So it seems that he’s answered your question.

    As far as the rumors you mentioned, yes there are those who think the aliens have installed Petrus Romanus and that he’s a secret Muslim working to install the Caliphate in the US, but I think we should leave that kind of speculation to the tin foil hat brigade.

  • The True Will

    “But it’s also possible that when he said he “marveled” at the majesty of it, he may have just meant from what he saw in pictures.”
    Or that he saw the convoy of pilgrims before they got to Al-Shemisi. Or he saw it on television.

  • One of the problems with swearing on the Constitution is that we live in an age of interpreting what the Constitution means to suit our needs, and we tend to set aside the words it actually uses. Brennan’s views in that regard would be important to know, especially since “rule of law” pertains greatly to the Bill of Rights and not just to the separation of powers and the extent of the power of his part of the Executive Branch.

    If he’s a Christian or a Moslem doesn’t matter much to me, but if he’s either, swearing on the Constitution rather than the Bible or the Koran (if Moslems even do that sort of thing) would be telling. The Constitution lately is a malleable document, and I could seem him swearing on it but lying, and violating it big time while asserting that he is upholding it, and claiming he is being faithful to his oath when he knows he’s not. But the other books are not so malleable, and as Martha says, swearing on them would for the believer be risking damnation if he is lying.

    • That would necessarily imply that Brennan would be at least a somewhat devout believer who would nevertheless be willing to *consciously* lie and deceive and violate the law of the land…

  • Spencerian

    A nit to pick on using bad analogies that illustrate a poor understanding of simple Judeo-Christian practice by the story:

    Suggesting that swearing on a Bible wouldn’t obligate a person to observe the Sabbath is nonsensical. The Jewish faith does not use “the Bible”–a Christian compilation of select writings from specific Judaic theologies with the Christian books known as the “New Testament” added in.

    Since “the Bible” is a Christian text, the Sabbath does not apply since this faith observes the Lord’s Day on Sunday, not the Sabbath, which begins at sunset on Friday.

  • John Pack Lambert

    It is common practice by many Christians to refer to “keeping the Sabbath day holy” when they are speaking of their observations of Sunday. Such an observation is how it is used in a great many cases.