Religious Freedom and Taking An Oath
Last month, Democrat Keith Ellison became the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress and recently announced that he would take his oath of office using the Koran (the holy book of Islam). One of the strongest expressions of opposition to Ellison’s choice came from Dennis Prager, a prominent Jewish commentator, who said “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.” Prager, a conservative talk radio host in Los Angeles, serves on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. His remarks are of equal insult to Jews and Muslims because religious oppression has been experienced by both groups. More pointedly, his words undermine religious freedom, a liberty that Prager himself has enjoyed as a U.S. citizen. In fact, Jewish voices contested colonial and state laws mandating that legislators take a Christian oath of office. Jews were ultimately successful in arguing that they could swear on a “Bible” that did not include the New Testament.
The U.S. Constitution makes clear in Article VI that: “… no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” If the oath or affirmation is to the constitution, it seems that one can take an oath on anything. John Quincy Adams took the presidential oath using a law volume. More to the point, two years ago, U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) took her oath of office on a Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and recently expressed public support for Ellison’s decision to use the Koran. Twenty years earlier, as noted in JWA’s online exhibit Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, Madeleine Kunin, a Jewish immigrant from Switzerland, took the oath of office as the first female governor of Vermont by resting her left hand on a stack of old prayer books that had belonged to her mother, grandparents, and great grandfather.
The choices made by Wasserman Schultz and Kunin did not prompt the same resistance or criticism brought forth by Ellison’s decision to use the Koran. Their choices fit easily into a U.S. culture predominantly shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Some Americans see Islam as too “alien” to fall within the parameters of religious freedom and believe it has no place in the political ritual of taking an oath.
So what exactly does this all mean? If serving the U.S. government implies that a legislator is honoring the Judeo-Christian tradition, perhaps the meaning and application of religious freedom should be re-examined. Shouldn’t American religious freedom encourage non-Christians and non-Jews to run for office? Or maybe taking the oath of office should not involve a book at all.