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 tomorrow on the Koran.
The objections to allowing 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 Koran, 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an.”
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.