I hadn’t planned on writing about this issue until I had the fourth person mention it to me. It was at that point I decided I couldn’t remain silent any longer. Now at the outset let me remind you that I have made it no secret here that I am a Christian, and I am fairly conservative. I believe in many American traditions and love our heritage of liberty laden documents like the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.
However, the comments made in my presence this past week by several people reinforced to me what I already know. What many Americans think are fact and law are sometimes at best only tradition and myth. Now there’s nothing really wrong with this. Every culture needs its traditions and myths, but when tradition and myth intrude on the legal rights of others then tradition and myth can be a dangerous thing. So what started this discourse? Last week Dennis Prager, talk show host, author and on-line columnist, published this column seen here, and the next day his follow up can be seen here regarding the brand new Congressman from Minnesota, Keith Ellison.
This week I heard from American citizens that it was a law that all members of Congress must swear an oath on the Christian Bible. I heard someone say only Christians should be members of Congress because the United States is a Christian nation. I heard someone say, when confronted with the truth about the legalities, that law doesn’t matter and that if a member of Congress doesn’t want to swear to the Christian God by placing his hand on a Christian Bible then he shouldn’t be allowed to serve the people who elected him.
How Puritan! How close-minded! So, is this what we have made of ourselves with tradition and myth? Is it “our” way or the highway?
In the early days before the thirteen colonies were even completely organized a man by the name of Roger Williams dissented from the Puritan way of life. He spoke out and stated he thought the Puritan tradition of allowing religion to dictate government policy and procedures wrong. He felt the treatment of Native Americans was wrong. He was banished from the Puritan colony and eventually founded a settlement at Providence where a government was set up that clearly seperated church and state and called for equal rights for all who lived there.
Thomas Hooker, a pastor, was a Puritan dissenter as well. He disputed Puritan views that stated only those of the Puritan version of faith could vote within the colony. Hooker felt any man should have the right to vote, and after banishment went on to found the colony of Connecticut. The Fundamental Orders, Connecticut’s plan of government, is thought to be the world’s first constitution of its kind. All men were given the right to participate in government.
I review these situations in our history because they are important. The ideas that these two people took with them as they were banished from the Puritan way of life became some of the most important aspects of the government of the United States….freedom of religion, seperation of church and state, and the right to comment and dissent.
Poor Mr. Prager, though. He has been cussed out, villified, and has been threatened. We need to remember he has a right to express his opinion and there is a way to disagree without name calling and threats. I admire Mr. Prager and have enjoyed listening to him in the past. I will probably listen to him in the future, but I feel strongly he is wrong in this case simply because the Constitution does not support his views.
The oath of office that members of Congress recite is not written specifically in the Constitution. The only oath of office that is prescribed word-for-word is the oath for president. Members of the first Congress in 1789 took it upon themselves to create an oath as one of their first acts as a lawmaking body. The oath, a mere fourteen words, said, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States of America.”
Why so short? Why so simple? The answer is simple…..The Constitution states members of Congress and other officials “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this Constitution.” That’s it. This oath was changed a bit during the Civil War over time as members of Congress were concerned a traitor might take a seat in Congress. The added text came to be known as the Test Oath as it was a test of loyalty. Eventually members of Congress had to recite this revised oath as well as sign a copy. Even when the test oath text was removed, in 1884, it became a tradition for members of Congress to sign their name in a book that is filled with names of people who have served in Congress and have taken the oath. Mr. Ellison and other new members of Congress will be signing that book very soon.
In Prager’s first column he states, “When all elected officials take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization.” Huh? I don’t get it. First of all they don’t’ and haven’t in the past said the oath with their hand on the same book. Second, they don’t state they will support a value system. They only state they will uphold the Constition as they serve “we the people”. The Constitution is not a value system…..it is a plan for our government….it details how the government will operate.
Mr. Prager states many Jews, non-believers, Mormans, etc. have placed their hands on a Bible, but he doesn’t give any specific names of people. I am wary of blanket statements, and quiet frankly I’d be suspect of any person who placed their hand on the Bible when it isn’t their sacred text. To force someone or intimidate them to do that is an act no better than the early explorers who slashed the throats of Native Americans simply because they wouldn’t pray to God and convert from their wicked ways.
Many say, and I can agree, the whole thing is a moot point anyway. All new members stand together in a group, raise their hands, and repeat words that have been part of an oath crafted by the First Congress in 1789. There are no hands placed on any book of any kind. Later during the photo-op there is an opportunity for a new member of Congress to be surrounded by friends, family, and the book of their choice if the mood strikes.
Prager goes on, however, and says, “So why are we allowing Keith Ellison to do what no other member of Congress has ever done----choose his most revered book for this oath?” Gee, maybe because that’s the tradition……others have done this with no problem. Case in point……Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida refused the Christian Bible when she was sworn in as a U.S. Representative. A Hebrew Bible could not immediately be found, but one was eventually borrowed from another representative.
Eugene Volokh, in a National Review article seen here takes issue with Prager’s statement, “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.” Volokh continues, “…it is clear [Prager] is wrong. Linda Lingle, Governor of Hawaii, took the oath of office on a Torah in 2001….[and] Madeleine Kunin, a Jewish immigrant and Governor of Vermont [used family owned prayer books].” (Mr. Volokh also explores the mutliculturalism aspect of Mr. Prager’s argument in the last link given as well).
Prager continues, “…I nor tens of millions of other Americans will watch in silence as the Bible is replaced with another religious text for the first time since George Washington brought a Bible to his swearing-in.” First of George Washington was being sworn as the president of the United States. This is the only office that the Constitution specifically calls for and prescribes an oath of office. I have researched and have been provided with a waterfall of information regarding Washington and his oath of office and my sources explain to me that the Bible Washington used was not one he brought. It was an after thought and one had to be procured.
In fact, there have been presidents who were sworn with no Bible at all such as Theodore Roosevelt. Rutherford B. Hayes had no Bible at his private ceremony. He only pulled it out for the public. Franklin Pierce did not swear but used the affirmation choice, as did Herbert Hoover, a Quaker. Lyndon Johnson was sworn in for his first term using only a missal, a book containing the prayers and rites used by a priest in celebrating Mass.
In the follow up column Prager states, “Clearly, many Americans, including some conservatives and libertarians, have no problem with the idea that for the first time in American history, a person elected to Congress has rejected the Bible for another religious text when taking his oath of office.” In another statement he says, “America is interested in only one book, the Bible.”
I’m sorry….I must have missed the memo that made Christianity the official religion of the nation. What about the Constitution’s provision that states “no religious test shall ever be required as qualification to any office or public trust under the United States….” It would seem that the framers of the Constitution solved this issue a long time ago. The Constitution goes on to state, “The Senators and Representatives…[and other state and federal officials] shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution, but no religious test shall ever be required.”
In the second column Prager states, “My belief that the Bible should be present at any oath (or affirmation) of office has nothing whatsoever to do with the religion of the office holder.” This really scares me. Is this what we are about? I don’t care what religion you are. I don’t care if you don’t worship this way. Swear to my book, my way, or it’s the highway. Mr. Prager says the solultion is very simple….Mr. Ellison should bring both books, the Bible and the Koran, to the ceremony. In this way he will be sending the “right” message. In fact I believe that is really what is at the crux of Mr. Prager’s shorts being in a tangled knot….
Mr. Prager seems to think since he will have already been sworn in Mr. Ellison will bring his Koran to make a point to the American people. He says, “…the use of the Koran has absolutely nothing to do with taking an oath on the book he holds sacred. It is used entirely to send a message to the American people. So all the arguments that he must be able to swear on the book he holds sacred are moot. He will have already been sworn in.” If this is the case then all of the books members bring to the photo-op are moot and are simply “messages” being sent to the American people. I disagree with the whole “message” reasoning, however, when have we ever denied free speech? If Mr. Ellisons’ message can’t be delivered then no one’s message should be delivered.
I tell my nine year old students everyday they have a responsibility to themselves to not believe everything they see, hear, and read until they have have checked things out themselves and have used the facts to arrive at their own conclusions. It is easy to make blanket statements, it is easy to allow tradition and myth to cloud our collective national conscience, and it is easy to sit back and allow things to happen. This situation has probably educated many, many people who were under wrong impressions. This situation has probably opened the door for some to reconsider their thoughts and opinions. This situation shows that our country is indeed a wonder place where all are invited to participate in government, and all are free to worship in any manner they choose.
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