Conservative talk show host Dennis Prager reacted with misinformed, knee-jerk vitriol upon news of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison’s victory and the ensuing news that Ellison planned to swear his ceremonial oath of office on the Quran rather than the Bible.
The controversy stems from several passages in a column Prager wrote for townhall.com. Prager wrote, “America is only interested in only one book: the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress.”
He also likened Ellison’s swearing in on the Quran to constituting “the first break of the tradition of having a Bible present at a ceremony of installation of a public official since George Washington inaugurated the tradition.”
According to Jonathan Turley of USA Today, however, Prager’s notion of tradition is historically inconsistent as well as emotional and inflammatory. Many officials have chosen to use texts other than the Christian Bible. Turley wrote, “Presidents such as John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover opted not to use the Bible. Adams used a legal book. Franklin Pierce declined to take a sworn oath at all and instead simply affirmed.”
Prager’s claim that American values stem from Judeo-Christian values is also a bit sketchy. Arguably, the inception of American values represented complete separation from the old Judeo-Christian values: Judeo-Christian values recognize subservience to God as the ultimate existential aim, but America’s enlightenment values uphold individual dignity as supremely important. You know, that whole life, liberty and pursuit of happiness idea.
In fact, the founding fathers were predominantly deists. Deists aren’t Christian. Loosely, Deism recognizes a clockmaker sort of god who doesn’t interfere much in human affairs and instead explains natural phenomenon through reason. This would suggest the allusions to God in early American documents are not at all specific to Jesus.
Moreover, Prager’s emphasis of tradition both undermines American law and fosters a skewed sense of national unity.
Turley points out that Prager’s demand for biblical affirmation violates Article VI of the Constitution, which prohibits religious requirements for political candidacy. Prager’s advocacy of using the Bible during the swearing-in ceremony also neglects the establishment clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment, which states that the United States government will neither support nor detract from any religious institution.
It should be noted that Prager’s talk of tradition, as well as tradition’s relation to national unity, is based on flat-out false reasoning rather than sound analysis. By appealing to tradition as an ethical standard, Prager asserts that behavior or policy is right so long it has been performed in the past. History is testament enough to the absurdity of such a position: To argue that the evils of slavery or female genital mutilation are somehow justified simply because they have been performed for centuries is bizarre and baseless.
Apart from Prager’s inane babble, the million-dollar question remains: Was it right that Ellison swore in on the Quran?No. For the same reason it isn’t right for a person of any faith to be required to swear on a religious text.
What religion represents is opposed to the very workings of a democratic republic. All the texts of the great religions of the world similarly call for dissolution of the self and submission towards the ultimate, as well as treating earthly affairs second.
Thus, instead of affirming the sacredness of a public office, religious oaths undermine the office’s significance. As a public servant, an elected official’s primary responsibility is to work for his or her constituents by representing them and upholding their rights. If not already obvious, a conflict of interest between this tangible responsibility and submission to God is created: Sure, it makes sense that mindful citizens should have the right to purchase birth control, but God said premarital sex was bad so instead the representative listens to God.
Religious oaths also stem from fear rather than self-interest. Voters should seek out politicians who want to govern responsibly because they love their freedoms and the benefits of those freedoms, not politicians who may or may not govern due to fear of an supernatural boogieman.
In truth, the Bible has little to do with Americanism. If the values of secular government and individual rights are to be upheld, then the United States must be concerned with one document above all others when it comes to public policy: The Constitution of the United States of America.
Victoria Bekiempis is a sophomore majoring in history and French.