One of the many things that I like about our fine nation is our willingness to tolerate — and even encourage — behavior that deviates from the expected. Consider the case of Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, who declined to be sworn into office in the House on Jan. 4 with his hand on the Bible, preferring instead the Koran, the holy book of his own religion, Islam.
This raised a few eyebrows. Minor objections were voiced, most prominently by Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., who appears to favor immigration policies that exclude all Muslims from coming into our country, overlooking the fact that Ellison’s family has been on the continent since 1742. Ultimately, though, the principles of our Constitution prevailed: Ellison was sworn in publicly with the rest of the representatives, and then sworn in separately with his hand on the book upon which his faith is based, a Koran that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.
This small incident is worth celebrating as an affirmation of Americanism. Not many citizens in other countries are able to claim this much freedom, and the fact that we can says a great deal about us. For example, even some of the civilized countries of Western Europe have passed laws that make Holocaust denial illegal. While I’m sure we find the Holocaust — and its denial –as repugnant as those countries do, we’re more repelled by any effort by government to control what we think and say. This says a lot about who we are.
Allowing Ellison to swear on the Koran is thoroughly consistent with our Constitution, but it has several other benefits, as well. Some of what pushes a minority of Muslims around the world toward the militant fringe is their long memory of the Crusades and the perhaps mistaken perception of a connection between some of our Middle Eastern policies and conservative Christianity.
It must be an eye-opener to moderate Muslims everywhere to see us allow one of their own to affirm his allegiance to our Constitution on a Koran, rather than a Bible. I suspect that it’s similar to the impact we would experience if we were to discover that one of the moderates recently elected to the Tehran city council had been permitted to take his oath of office with his hand on the Bible. It would change everything about how we view Iran.
Furthermore, allowing Ellison to use the Koran illustrates that Scriptures, deemed sacred by many, can co-exist with secular governance. Thanks to my upbringing in a fundamentalist Christian church, I know a lot about the Bible. I know very little about the Koran. But I suspect that they’re identical in one important way: with enough searching through their extensive and sometimes contradictory passages, support for nearly any doctrinal position can be found.
Paradoxically, this allows equally religious believers to base their faith in the same book, while at the same time some of them allow gay marriage, for example, and others condemn homosexuals to hell. The religious may want to sort through this apparent contradiction, but it needn’t trouble particularly an officeholder who swears to uphold the Constitution with his hand on the Bible.
In our country, politicians recognize that the Constitution and the rule of law trump the various religious faiths that politicians may embrace. If the Koran actually says that infidels should be put to the sword, I suspect, nevertheless, that Keith Ellison has no intention of actually doing so, any more than rich congressmen are likely, after swearing on the Bible, to follow Christ’s guidance in Matthew 19:21: “…go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor and thou shalt have treasure in heaven …”
So the Ellison incident embodies a healthy principle for Muslims everywhere, and for Christians and others, as well. A religious text may shore up the devotion with which a believer undertakes his duties, but in a liberal democracy like ours, religion gives way to the laws upon which the citizens, religious and non-religious, agree. This moderate approach works for us; Ellison illustrates clearly that it could work for Muslims, too.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)Delmar.edu.)