Let Keith Ellison Take His Oath On The Koran!
Those who view the political right as a monolithic, lock-step movement would do well to look into the respective positions of Dennis Prager and Michael Medved on whether newly elected Congressional Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) (photo left) may choose to take his oath of office on the Koran. Prager and Medved are both Salem Radio Network talkshow hosts, and both are religious, practicing Jews. (The always independent-minded Prager belongs to a synagogue in the Reform movement, even as he takes iconoclastic positions on both religious and political issues contrary to the prevailing views in Reform Judaism. Medved is Orthodox.) Yet they have taken opposite positions on this question.
In a recent Townhall.com column, Prager argues as follows:
"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 your personal life, we will fight for your right to prefer any other book. We will even fight for your right to publish cartoons mocking our Bible. But, Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath."
Medved, on the other hand, on his radio program, has stated that forcing Representative Ellison to take his Congressional oath on the Bible would be the clearest possible violation of the prohibition of established religion in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, a blatant government expression of preference of one religion's sacred text over another.
I completely agree with Medved. Indeed, I frankly find Prager's position on this issue to be astonishing in its display of ignorance of the First Amendment, the rest of the U.S. Constitution, history and facts. One example: Prager writes, "But for all of American history, Jews elected to public office have taken their oath on the Bible, even though they do not believe in the New Testament ... ." Nonsense. While some Jewish public officials may have chosen to takes their oathes on a Christian Bible, complete with the New Testament, elected Jewish office holders, at least in modern times, have always been allowed to take an oath on a Jewish Bible, which of course does not contain the New Testament. Senator Joe Lieberman took his Senatorial oath of office on a Lieberman family bible; it did not, rest assured, contain the New Testament.
Prager's position would disqualify from public service any person whose religious conscience and sincerely held religious beliefs would prevent him or her from swearing on a Christian Bible. Should I ever be so unlucky as to be elected to public office, I certainly would be unwilling to take the oath on a Christian Bible. In fact, many pious Orthodox Jews, in order to avoid any possibility of taking God's name in vain, will out of conscience not take any oath ever under any circumstances, even at the risk of financial loss, but will only make an affirmation.
Indeed, Prager's position goes against the express language of the Constitution, which states in Article VI:
"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."
The alternative of affirmation is thus provided in the Constitution itself, in the very sentence that prohibits a religious test as a qualification for public office! What stronger proof could there be that Prager's position, that one cannot serve in Congress if one is unwilling to take an oath on the Bible, is, well, unconstitutional.
Moreover, the alternative of affirmation is also given in Article II of the Constitution, regarding the oath of office to be taken by the President:
"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.'"
Finally, Prager's position on this issue misses the whole point of why one takes an oath of office on a Bible or another sacred text. The concept is that the person making the oath is putting the force of something that is holy and sacred to the oath taker behind his commitment to keep the oath. He says in effect, "If I betray my oath of office, I am betraying the God to whom I pray and the book that I consider to be God's words." For that reason, completely apart from Constitutional considerations, wouldn't we want Keith Ellison to take his oath of office on the book that he considers most sacred, the Koran, rather that on the Bible, which in his religious world view has lesser sanctity and has been superceded?