Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Idiots Anonymous

Hi. My name is Dennis Prager, and I'm a moron.

Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress, has announced that he will not take his oath of office on the Bible, but on the bible of Islam, the Koran.

He should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization.

Why, you ask, does one's choice of holy book threaten our very civilization?

What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book; all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.

Forgive me, but America should not give a hoot what Keith Ellison's favorite book is. Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress.

In Prager's world, apparently, when an elected official takes the oath of office, he isn't only swearing to uphold the duties of that office; he's also swearing fealty to the Christian underpinnings of our country.

Prager might have a point -- an odious, xenophobic point, but a point nonetheless -- if he were actually correct. But he's not.

First, the use of a Bible in the oath-swearing process is a tradition, but not mandatory, as even the State Department points out.

As evidence of that, two presidents declined to use Bibles when they were sworn in. John Quincy Adams took the oath with his hand on a volume of law; Theodore Roosevelt simply used nothing.

Heck, if Prager had a clue he'd remember that the Founders specifically forbade any sort of religious test as a requirement for holding office. Article VI reads, in part:

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.

And the presidential oath of office is studiously secular. From Article II:

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

So Prager is wrong on the particulars. But he's also wrong on a general level. Because the point of swearing on a Bible is not to show support for the Bible -- it's intended to be a sign of taking the oath of office seriously by swearing on something important to you. It's akin to a blood oath, or "I swear on my mother's grave" or "cross my heart and hope to die."

So Christians swear on the Bible, because (the thinking goes) swearing on their religion makes them that much less likely to break their oath. But the oath, not the Bible, is the important thing.

And in that context, forcing a Jew or a Muslim or an atheist to swear on a Bible is not just obnoxious; it's pointless. Because to a Jew, for example, an oath sworn on a Bible is no more or less binding than an oath sworn on a telephone book.

Also, it's worth noting that the Founders provided the option of simply "affirming" their committment to their duties. And again, two presidents have done just that: Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover. This further demonstrates that the whole idea of "swearing on" something is simply a tradition, not something central to the process. Just like the words "So help me God" that most presidents add to the end of the oath.

Further, I believe members of Congress take the oath en masse, and nobody checks to see if they're swearing on a Bible, Playboy magazine or nothing at all.

Prager ratchets up the hyperbole later on:

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?

Note the logic: If it's not the Bible, it's the equivalent of "Mein Kampf."

That aside, the argument is fallacious. There are many religious objects and books that might be looked at askance if used in a swearing-in ceremony; but that has nothing to do with them not being the Bible. I doubt an Aztec would be allowed to take the oath while standing over a human sacrifice. And he definitely wouldn't be allowed to play soccer with the head afterward. But that says nothing about the use of something other than a Bible -- it merely demonstrates that some things are repugnant.

Ellison should be able to swear on a Bible if he wants to; he should be able to swear on a Koran if he wants to. He should be able to affirm his oath without swearing on a book at all if he wants to. The oath is the important thing, and his adherence to it is what he will be judged on.

Update: The Star Tribune did a cover story on the flap. It references a Eugene Volokh column at National Review Online that echoes many of the points I make above. While we both identified Pierce and Hoover as presidents who affirmed their oath rather than swearing it, he missed the fact that John Quincy Adams and Teddy Roosevelt didn't use a Bible at all. On the other hand he notes that Hawaii governor Linda Lingle, a Jew, was sworn in on the Tanakh.

Further discussion of Volokh's column can be found at a companion post on his blog.

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Blogger Frank N. Honest said...

maybe the bible is outdated, and shouldn't be used. It's pretty easy to tie it to separation of church/state. i suggest the federal constitution for federal offices, and the state constitution for all lower offices. i am not christian, but i do hold judeo-christian beliefs, i don't want an officer using something he doesn't hold personally sacred, and i also don't want someone swearing on the comic book of the flying spaggeti monster. i find the constitution or for shame of mentioning... the bill of rights. It truly shouldn't be looked at as a compromise, after all it's what they are swearing to uphold to begin with.

2/27/2010 8:51 AM  

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