Keith Ellison wants to put his hand on the Koran and be sworn in as a newly elected Congressman from Minnesota. Ellison was born in Detroit and converted to Islam in college and wants to exercise his freedom of religion in beginning his work as a public official. To my knowledge, this kind of request has never been made and really is source of discussion for folks who are fearful of this precedent. Persons elected to public office have used the Bible in taking their oath of office for many years.
A Republican congressman from Virginia has been quite vocal in his concerns. Republican congressman Virgil Goode of Virginia sent a letter to his constituents indicating that Ellison’s use of the Koran poses a danger to social and religious fabric of America. He wrote, “I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policiess that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.” Apparently, Goode believes that Ellison’s swearing in with the Koran and the problem of illegal immigration are related. I don’t understand all his arguments for this position, especially since Ellison meets the criteria for qualifying to serve in the position to which he has been elected. I don’t think that is illegal. Goode must be reacting to a deeper seeded issue and that is the belief that America is a Christian nation and using the Koran violates that premise.
Interestingly, elected officials don’t have to use the Bible at all when they are being sworn in. Article VI of the Constitution indicates that elected officials are bound by oath or affirmation to uphold the constitution, “but no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust in the United States.” We have seen the Bible used in these solemn occasions so often that many assume that it is a necessary part of public office. It is not. Only allegiance to the Constitution is warrented.
To be honest, seeing someone being sworn in with the Koran is quite a reality check. It is somewhat unnerving, especially with all the problems and emotions tied up with Muslim extremists and terrorism. Many people have a direct correlation with Islam and planes flying into those twin towers on 9/11. The extremist faction of Islam deserves this kind of scrutiny, and unfortunately those who are carrying out their religion peaceably get stereotyped by the violence seen on TV. So, whenever we hear about someone being a Muslim there is a heightened sense of awareness. Now there is someone who will be in a position of power and leadership who openly embraces a key symbol of Islam during a swearing in ceremony. It will be interesting to see whether Ellison’s religious views take more notice that his political ones. Time will tell.
Dr. Walter Shurden, Executive Director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University expresses an important truth in regard to Ellison’s choice. “I believe that we Christians have a hard time understanding that the United States of America is NOT a Christian nation but a constitutional republic that allows religious freedom for all its citizens” (The Baptist Studies Bulletin, December 2006). His view is that Baptists have been on the forefront of the fight for religious liberty in this country and should defend Ellison’s right to express his religion any way he chooses.
There is a sense that because Baptists have become bigger and more influential that we have forgotten what it is like to be in the minority. We must continue the fight for religious expression in our country, especially as the issue comes into focus with this swearing in ceremony. The vast majority of politicians have placed their hand on the Bible before taking office, yet this did not prevent some of them from becoming politically, financially, and even morally corrupt while they represented the ones who put them in office. Apparently, it was easier for them to put a hand on the Bible than live out what it says about treating others and offering justice to those in need.
Let Ellison use the Koran. He was duly elected by his constituents. Let this also be a wakeup call to take our beliefs and values as seriously as he is doing now. We are a diverse nation and need to celebrate our differences of opinion, especially as it relates to religious. Remember, it’s not about religious toleration. It’s about religious liberty.