The Prager / Medved / Volokh / Ellison Showdown Over Koran-Swearing

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Dec 05, 2006 10:14 AM

I've been remiss and haven't blogged about this yet, so I'll get everyone up to speed. Last week, Dennis Prager wrote the now-famous column, "America, not Keith Ellison, decides what book a Congressman takes his oath on."

The meat of it:

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.

Though I like much of what Prager writes, I disagreed with the notion that one guy getting sworn in with a Koran would undermine our very civilization. I also disagreed that he should be prohibited from doing so, if that were his wish. I also thought the last paragraph was way overboard:

When all elected officials take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization. If Keith Ellison is allowed to change that, he will be doing more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.

Ironically, it was Prager's objection to the use of the Koran that unified Americans of the right and left blogospheres in a very rare way.

Eugene Volokh called Prager's idea a violation of the "religious test" provision of the Constitution:

If you want the oath to be maximally effective, then it is indeed entirely true that "all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book." That book is the one that will most impress the oathtaker's mind with the duty to comply with the oath.

Of course, some might care less about making the oath more effective, and more about using the oath to reinforce traditional American values, in which they include respect for the Bible (the "only ... book" "America is interested in") over other holy books. That, I take it, is part of Prager's argument, especially when he goes on to say, "When all elected officials take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization."

Yet this would literally violate the Constitution's provision that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." For the devout, taking an oath upon a religious book is a religious act. Requiring the performance of a religious act using the holy book of a particular religion is a religious test.

James Joyner, Glenn Reynolds, Stephen Bainbridge, Allah, and many, many, many others chimed in. The links that reference the Constitution are generally right bloggers. Those that reference a string of curse words are generally lefties, just for reference.

You can watch Prager and Volokh debate it, here.

CAIR is now demanding that Prager be removed from his position on the Holocaust Memorial Council, but I'm not sure CAIR is an organization that should have much say in who serves on that particular council.

Today, Prager takes on the subject again in "A response to my many critics-- and a solution."

The meat of it. He takes on these accusations:

Accusation: I am advocating something unconstitutional by demanding that the Bible be included in oaths of office. I am reminded that Mr. Ellison has a right to practice the religion of his choice and that there shall be no religious test for candidates for office in America...

Accusation: Very many critics note the fact that members of Congress are not sworn in individually with Bibles but all together in the House chamber and without the Bible. The use of the Bible is a ceremonial act that takes place in private before family, friends and the press. My critics cite this fact as if somehow it invalidates my larger point...

Accusation: My column and/or I are racist, bigoted and Islamophobic...

I am for no law to be passed to prevent Keith Ellison or anyone else from bringing any book he wants to his swearing-in, whether actual or ceremonial. But neither I nor tens of millions of other Americans will watch in silence as the Bible is replaced with another religious text for the first time since George Washington brought a Bible to his swearing-in. It is not I, but Keith Ellison, who has engaged in disuniting the country. He can still help reunite it by simply bringing both books to his ceremonial swearing-in. Had he originally announced that he would do that, I would have written a different column -- filled with praise of him. And there would be a lot less cursing and anger in America.

I still disagree, but it's worth a read. Especially if you're on the Prager bashwagon, it's always nice to know exactly what you're putting down before you fly off the handle.

Prager's colleague and fellow Townhall columnist Michael Medved rebuts Pragers argument today in his column, "One holy book cannot be sole option."

The meat of it:

But Congressman Ellison has never asked to impose any aspect of his faith on anyone else, or on the public at large. He's requested an ordinary courtesy: the ability to bring his own holy book for the purpose of reciting an oath (an oath that remains word-for-word unchanged in his recitation.)

If this personal decision represents the "Islamicization" of the society, then what does my friend Dennis make of the yearly invitations to Muslim Imams to conduct opening prayers for the House or Senate? We've also seen White House celebrations under both Clinton and Bush of major Muslim feasts (Eid al Adha and Eid al Fitr) in which Presidents publicly honor Islamic traditions...

These benign gestures fall within our long-standing traditions of religious pluralism (like allowing Hanukah Menorahs, alongside Christmas trees, in public places) and serve to recognize the presence in our midst of several million Muslim citizens, who play a role in our economy, our educational system, our military and, now, our Congress.

We may not like their religion, but as long as its adherents conduct themselves as loyal and law-abiding Americans we have no right to restrict its practice.

Many have pointed out, throughout the controversy, that the holy book swearing-in ceremony is not the official swearing in, which happens sans holy text. The swearing-in with Bible is a tradition and an optional photo-op for new Members. Prager argues that the fact that it's a tradition makes it all the more important to keep the Bible involved:

Ceremonies matter a lot. As I told the Associated Press, ceremonies are essential to the continuity of a civilization. Therefore, the first time in American history that a congressman has decided to jettison the Bible for another text should not go unnoticed -- or elicit yawns, as it has from conservative and libertarian critics.

To me, the use of the Koran seems, not only benign, but even more clearly a personal choice if the swearing-in is a photo-op and ceremony with family. Everyone in Ellison's district knew that his Muslim faith was part of the candidate they voted for. I'm sure they're not surprised by his desire to use a Koran.

I'm sympathetic to the idea that we should be careful that our multiculturalism and tolerance does not lead us to excuse the inexcuseable. I agree that we shouldn't make special exceptions for Muslims behaving badly in our society just because Muslims are both the most sensitive minority group of late and the coolest group to be sensitive on behalf of. But Ellison's using a Koran in his swearing-in does not fit into either of those categories.

Click through, and enjoy the controversy.