Keith Ellison, a newly elected Democratic Congressman from Minnesota, took the oath of office yesterday. Much ink has been spilled and much cyber-space has been occupied and many words have been spoken about the fact that Ellison, who converted from Roman Catholicism to Islam when he was in college, chose to place his hand on a copy of the Quran for his ceremonial swearing in. That is the right way to put it, by the way. As I understand it, the actual swearing in is done en mass in the House chamber; none of the members of Congress who are being sworn actually put their hand on any book during that ceremony. Most members then have a reenactment of the ceremony during which they place their hand on a Bible or other religious text (Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz placed her hand on a copy of the Tanakh in 2005).
Some folks are very upset about Congressman Ellison’s action. It is hysterical hyperbole to claim that this could be the beginning of some vast Muslim invasion of Congress. On the NPR program Talk of the Nation yesterday, Scott Simon pointed out that this 110th Congress is the most religiously diverse ever. Ellison is the first Muslim member of Congress. This Congress also has the first two Buddhist members. In addition, Simon said, there are Jews, Baptists, Christian Scientists, Mormons, Episcopalians, and more. In other words, the make-up of the Congress is just coming to reflect more and more the diversity that is so classically American. I think that’s a good thing. Let’s not forget, too, that Congressman Ellison was elected to represent the people of the 5th district of Minnesota, not the American Islamic community, just like a Baptist congressman is elected to represent the people of his district and not just the Baptists who live there.
From my Baptist perspective, I think it’s best that Ellison did not take his ceremonial oath on the Bible. For faith to mean anything it needs to be a personally held faith, a faith held by conviction and not by coercion. Ellison’s faith convictions are of the Islamic variety. That is his choice and, while I would gladly share my faith in Christ with him and would be happy to see him become a Christian, I must respect his choice and his faith even as I would want him to respect mine. Why would I want him to place his hand on the book that I believe to be authoritative scripture when he does not believe it to be so? Would not such an action actually disrespect the Bible? Besides, I want his oath to mean something; I want him to feel that it is binding. Is it not better, then, that he take his oath on the book that he regards as authoritative?
Along these same lines, I would prefer that any Congressman or other elected official who does not accept the authority of the Bible make their oath without the use of a Bible. I think that respects the Bible more and guards the integrity of the oath better. To swear on the Bible without accepting the authority of the Bible seems to me to treat the Bible as a good luck charm, much like my Little League baseball teammates and I did when we carried Gideon New Testaments in our back pockets when we played our games. (Given that Jesus said that we should let our yes be yes and our no be no, perhaps it would be best if none of us, Christians included, placed our hands on the Bible or anything else when we make an oath, but that’s a topic for another day).
What we really need to think about is how we are going to relate to Muslims and people of other faiths and people of no faith. After all, all of the Muslims and Buddhists and Mormons are not in Congress. Many of them are in our communities. It is important that we treat each other with respect. It is important that we have the freedom to witness to each other of our faith. It is important that we have the liberty to practice the religion of our convictions or to practice no religion at all.
So the Quran has come to Congress. That’s ok. If it allowed Congressman Ellison to make his oath with integrity, that bodes well for his constituents.