A Muslim in Congress—What’s the World Coming to?
The election of Keith Ellison to Congress tests our ability to embrace diversity and honor the principles of free speech.
By Robert Cornwall
Congress is supposed to represent us Americans in government. This is especially true of the House of Representatives, which has become increasingly diverse. Surprisingly, until Keith Ellison (D-MN) was elected to represent Minnesota’s 5th District in November’s election, no Muslim had ever been elected to serve in Congress. Perhaps it’s providential that such an event would happen at a time when our country, the United States, is at war in two Muslim countries. Perhaps it will send a positive signal to the world at a time when the country’s reputation around the world is at perhaps an all-time low. Only five years after 9-11 rallied the world to our side, we’re reviled as a country because of our arrogance and what is taken by many around the world as war-mongering. But this election of Keith Ellison is a beacon of hope to the world, suggesting that this is a place that values its diversity.
Having made friends with several Muslims in the past few years, I shared the excitement of this community at the election of a fellow Muslim. Unfortunately, not everyone was quite as enthusiastic at this signal event in our history. In fact, there have been many naysayers who believe that this is going to be a bad thing for our country, especially if Ellison shows any signs of devoutness in his faith. The firebrands came out of the woodwork when he shared his desire to use the Koran rather than the Bible in taking the oath of office. As Bibles aren’t used in the official swearing-in ceremony for the House of Representatives, but only in the informal and unofficial photo opportunities, this controversy should never have happened. Still, even though the realities of the situation have been explained numerous times, the nation, it seems remains riled up.
I believe that much of this reaction is rooted in nativist tendencies that are so much a part of American life, and more particularly in a long-standing American suspicion of Muslims. Though the knee-jerk reactions are reflections of this xenophobia, it should be noted that Ellison is not foreign born, but an African American who, like Muhammad Ali, Ahmad Rashad, and other African American Muslims, converted to Islam.
Some of Ellison’s critics suggest that using the Koran instead of the Bible was and is somehow an attack on America. One of the first respondents was conservative talk show host Dennis Prager, who wrote: “If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress.” Judge Roy Moore of Alabama, who is best known for his promotion of the Ten Commandments, insisted that because “the Islamic faith rejects our God and believes that the state must mandate the worship of its own god, Allah,” Mr. Ellison won’t be able to uphold the Constitution of the United States and still be a Muslim. In something of a reverse of Sam Harris’s diatribe against Christians, Moore shows not only that he doesn’t know much about Islam, but that he also uses as his “conversation partner” the most extreme versions of Islam. So far, everything I’ve heard coming from Keith Ellison is anything but radical and extreme. Little needs to be said about the call from the conservative Christian American Family Association for a Constitutional amendment that would require the use of the Bible in all official ceremonies.
Although such anti-Muslim and xenophobic statements were not unexpected, I don’t think I was prepared for the bizarre outburst from one of Ellison’s future congressional colleagues. In the week before Christmas, Congressman Virgil Goode’s (R-VA) made strange statements about the need to restrict immigration lest more Muslims be elected to Congress. In fact, Goode suggested that if such steps weren’t taken, Congress could be overrun by Muslims. As the clock ticks backward, I’m reminded of the 19th century’s Know Nothing Party, whose battle cry of the Republic was the warning against the danger of Roman Catholic immigration.
What Prager, Moore, the AFA, and Goode do not seem to understand is that their responses are contrary to the American spirit of religious freedom. In fact, what they suggest is a direct challenge to our Constitution itself. Although the use of the Bible in swearing-in ceremonies is a long-standing tradition and a legacy of our civil religion, there is nothing in the Constitution that either requires the use of the Bible in any public ceremony or forbids using other religious or non-religious books in official government ceremonies. Besides, to require an elected official to use a Bible in public ceremonies when their own religious commitments lie elsewhere is an unconstitutional religious test. Article Six of the Constitution states: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” I’m amazed that so many people are willing to betray the Constitution in order to “protect” American civilization.
To say, as Dennis Prager did, that by allowing Keith Ellison to change tradition, he would “be doing more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11,” is not just anti-Muslim, it’s technically anti-American.
While I don’t believe that Prager, Moore, Goode, and their supporters represent the true beliefs of the American people, they have become a vocal minority that is intent on instilling fear into the hearts and minds of the American people. In the process, they seem to have forgotten the commitment to religious freedom that is at the heart of our nation’s governing philosophy. The only exception to this principle that I can think of is when there is a compelling reason to believe that the freedom of one will infringe on the freedoms of others. But I fail to see how choosing to swear an oath on the Koran could be classified as one of those compelling cases.
Since we find it necessary to take oaths, perhaps we would be better served by using a copy of the Constitution instead of a Bible or a Koran. I don’t say this out of disrespect for the Bible, but because I want to live in a country that values its freedoms—and because the ultimate irony is that using the Bible in oath-taking ceremonies has hardly proven to be a reliable guarantor of honesty or trustworthiness. How many of our elected officials have sworn on the Good Book to uphold our Constitution and serve the people with honesty and integrity, only to be exposed as the worst examples of corruption, deception and hypocrisy? Perhaps this is why Jesus himself forbade his followers to swear oaths on anything, including heaven. His word of advice is to simply let your word be “'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one" (Matthew 5:33-38).
I don’t live in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, but I commend its constituents on their willingness to embrace Keith Ellison and present an example of our nation’s ability to embrace diversity and live by the principles of free speech that have made it so unique among governments. Let’s not allow this enviable heritage to be threatened by so-called “real” Americans who neither understand nor respect the true meaning of freedom.
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Robert Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc and columnist for the Lompoc Record. He keeps a blog, Ponderings on a Faith Journey, and his last piece for SoMA was It's Time to Talk.
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