Keith Ellison: A Qur'anic Oath?
Keith Ellison, the first Muslim senator, plans to be sworn in on the Qur'an. So why are some pundits in an uproar?
BY: Omar Sacirbey
When Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat who last month was elected the first Muslim in Congress, announced he would take his oath of office on Islam's holy book, the Qur’an, he provoked sharp criticism from conservatives and some heated discussion on the blogosphere.
The ensuing discussion has revived the debate about whether America's values and legal system are shaped only by Judeo-Christian heritage or if there is room for Islamic and other traditions.
"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," Dennis Prager, a conservative talk radio host in Los Angeles, wrote in a Nov. 28 TownHall.com editorial. Prager, who is Jewish and serves on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, argued that Ellison should "not be allowed" to take his oath on the Qur’an.
In a subsequent interview, Prager said his objections were not to Ellison's use of the Qur’an, but to him not using a Bible.
"This has nothing to do with the Qur’an. It has to do with the first break of the tradition of having a Bible present at a ceremony of installation of a public official since George Washington inaugurated the tradition," Prager said.
Prager added that he would accept Ellison using a Qur’an if he also used a Bible. Ellison could not be reached for comment.
But Ellison would not be the first member of Congress to forgo a Bible. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., took her oath in 2005 on a Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, she borrowed from Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., after learning a few hours before that the speaker of the House didn't have any Jewish holy books.
"Each of us has every right to lay our hand on the Bible that we were raised with; that's what America is all about, diversity, understanding and tolerance," said Wasserman Schultz. "It doesn't appear that Dennis Prager has learned anything from his time on the Holocaust commission."
Other politicians have departed from the Bible as well. Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle used the Tanakh when she took her oath in 2002, while Madeleine Kunin placed her hand on Jewish prayer books when she was sworn in as the first female governor of Vermont in 1985.
"The books had belonged to my mother, my grandparents and my great-grandfather. I wanted to place my hand on the weight of Jewish history and connect with the generations of men and women who helped bring me to this moment," she wrote on the Jewish Women's Archive Web site.
In 1825, John Quincy Adams took the presidential oath using a law volume instead of a Bible, and in 1853, Franklin Pierce affirmed the oath rather than swearing it. Herbert Hoover, citing his Quaker beliefs, also affirmed his oath in 1929 but did use a Bible, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Theodore Roosevelt used no Bible in taking his first oath of office in 1901, but did in 1905.
Neither the House nor the Senate keeps record of what holy books, if any, are used in the unofficial ceremonies. In fact, House members are sworn in together on the House floor in a ceremony without any book, holy or otherwise. But in an unofficial ceremony, individual members re-enact an oath so it can be photographed. The tradition dates to the birth of photography, so congressmen could send photos back to their hometown newspapers.
Still, some conservative Christians have taken Prager's editorial as a clarion call. The American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss., for example, sent out an "action alert" to its 3.4 million members urging them to write their congressmen "to pass a law making the Bible the book used in the swearing-in ceremony of Representatives and Senators."