Despite a cynical campaign by those who would establish a religious test for holding office in these United States, newly elected Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison will swear his oath of office today on the Quran.
The objections to allow Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, to take the oath as he chooses were so absurd in character and contention that they could easily be dismissed as a sideshow. But it would be dangerous to do so. The fact is that there has for a number of years now been a concerted effort by sincere if misguided religious zealots and conservative political strategists who delight in exploiting fears of diversity to redefine the American experiment as a Christian religious endeavor.
History does not provide even a soft grounding for this fantasy. The Founders of the country were men and women of the Enlightenment who, while surely imperfect in their thoughts and deeds, wisely sought to burst the chains of what Thomas Jefferson referred to as "monkish ignorance and superstition." They revolted against the divine right of kings, rejected the construct of state-sponsored religion and wrote a Constitution that not only guaranteed freedom of religion but required that: "The Senators and Representatives ... 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 controversy over Ellison's desire to swear his oath on a Quran, which had been stoked by conservative commentators initially, reached something of a fever pitch when Virginia Congressman Virgil Goode, an otherwise obscure Republican, declared in a letter to a constituent that "When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing In Day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Quran in any way. The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran."
Goode made several television appearances during which he pushed this line, even after it was pointed out to him that Ellison was born in the United States and traced his family's roots in this country back at least to 1742.
Goode left no doubt about his disdain for Islam and for its practitioners, declaring that "I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped. The Ten Commandments and 'In God We Trust' are on the wall in my office. A Muslim student came by the office and asked why I did not have anything on my wall about the Quran. My response was clear, 'As long as I have the honor of representing the citizens of the 5th District of Virginia in the United States House of Representatives, The Quran is not going to be on the wall of my office.'"
Predictably, Goode found a forum on Fox News, where he stood by his statements and said, without a hint of irony, that "I wish more people would take a stand and stand up for the principles on which this country was founded."
What made Goode's ignorance of those founding principles remarkable was the fact that he represents Virginia's Albemarle County, where Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743.
On Thursday, it will not be Virgil Goode who pays tribute to Jefferson.
It will be Keith Ellison.
The new Congressman from Minnesota will declare his loyalty to the Constitution while clutching a copy of the Quran that was once owned by Jefferson. One of many Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist texts that the author of the Declaration of Independence donated to the Library of Congress at its founding, the Jefferson Quran has been loaned to Ellison by the rare book and special collections division of the library.
This is not mere symbolism. Ellison understands the Jeffersonian impulse that underpins the American experiment.
"When I'm officially sworn in, I will do it the same exact way as every other Congressperson-elect who was sworn in," explains the Representative from Minneapolis. "We will all stand up and in unison lift our hand and swear to uphold that Constitution, and then later, in a private ceremony, of course I'll put my hand on a book that is the basis of my faith, which is Islam, and I think that this is a beauty — this is a wonderful thing for our country because Jewish members will put their hands on the Torah. Mormon members will put their hand on the Book of Mormon. Catholic members will put their hand on the book of their choice — and members that don't want to put their hand on any book are also fully free to do that. That's the American way. ... I think the diversity of our country is a great strength. It's a good thing that we have people from all faiths and all cultures to come here."
Make no mistake, were Jefferson, Madison, George Mason or any of the other Virginians who put their hands to the task of forging an experiment in religious tolerance and liberty asked to choose between Virgil Goode and Keith Ellison, those advocates for a "wall of separation" between church and state would not hesitate to say that it is Ellison who should be sworn in. And Jefferson, who spoke and wrote so extensively about his interest in and respect for Islam, would surely be honored to know that Ellison's hand will rest on the Quran that an enlightened Founder bequeathed not just to the Library of Congress but to America.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation