Monday, December 04, 2006

Testicles and tradition

Some right-wingers are upset because Keith Ellison, the new Muslim congressman from Minnesota, doesn't plan to take his oath on the Bible, but on the Qu'ran.

As he should. The entire tradition of "testimony", or swearing, is to add that extra oomph to your words by affirming whatever it is on top of/in front of a representation of your religious belief -- I assume to intimate that you believe that god is listening and you'd be a fool to go back on your word.
He should not be allowed to do so,” columnist Dennis Prager writes [...] Insofar
as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is
concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are
incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress.
Prager is a narrow-minded idiot. On many counts. By trumpeting that "America picks the book!" that we use, he demonstrates that he knows nothing about the concept of testimony, and even less about the concepts of culture and "America". Despite his hyperbole, allowing someone to swear an oath by their own ethical and moral belief system is not going to be the "downfal of American civilization." Please.

First off, America isn't a theocracy yet, and to say that the bible is the only "book" is arrogant and presumptuous. Despite all the protestations from the religious conservatives, America was not founded as a christian nation, and the founding fathers were not christians in any sense of the word. Deists, yes. Believers in a higher power, yes; but allegiance to a particular dogma was not in the cards. It was something they specifically wanted to avoid.

The Bible doesn't have a monopoly on morals or values (in fact, some of the values and morals expressed in its pages are quite evil and unenlightened, as are those in most religious texts), and more specifically, it doesn't represent the American constitution or culture. It is the beloved book of millions of people around the world, but it is not the only possible icon that we can accept. And it is just that -- an icon of a particular belief. For me, for example, "swearing on a bible" is no more binding than swearing on a copy of Cat in the Hat. Either I am honest and will uphold my word, or I won't. The weight of a biblical blessing on my word is moot. The bible, to a Muslim, is still a holy book, but it is not the scripture of the islamic faith. Swearing on the bible (if you buy the idea that this tradition is meant to add some sort of threat of damnation if you renege) would not be particularly meaningful to someone who doesn't accept the book as their iconic text.

It certainly doesn't have anything to do with supporting a single, unified value system, as Prager writes. I can guarantee that people swearing on a bible don't follow the rules of every single word in it, and they certainly do not share the same interpretation of its words. Not even close. What unified system are they speaking of?

He has never heard of the "no religious tests" clause in the Constitution, I guess. There is a strict prohibition for requiring any officeholder to profess faith of any kind, much less accept any specific articles of faith. This whole hoopla comes up simply because the senator is Muslim -- and the popular culture and media have done a good job demonizing islam and playing to the ignorant masses wanting someone to blame for terrorism. A right wing radio host has suggested that Ellison needs to "prove" that he's a good American -- that shadowy suggestion of a loyalty oath has tossed up its ugly head -- simply because he is Muslim. "I have to tell you, I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, "Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies."

Disgusting. Although I'm sure it plays well with the people who want to preach fear fear fear at all times to retain power.

Prager also is woefully ignorant of history. At least two presidents (Hoover and Pierce) didn't take any oath -- they "affirmed" their office-- and that Teddy Roosevelt, who did take the oath, didn't take it on a Bible.

The bible is used by tradition, because most of our presidents have been nominally christian, or have at least accepted the Bible as a suitable object to swear by. I wonder if we just shouldn't go back to the historic meaning of testify -- related to testes -- and simply reach down, grab hold and swear by something important to you. Although I suppose that's sexist. The constitution allows "affirm" because not all people can or will swear (a word which has some serious meaning to Quakers, and an act that is specifically forbidden by the Bible in Matthew 5:33-37). But it is sort of amusing to point out that the injunction "Swear not at all" is in the book they demand others swear by.

By the time we got to the constitution, we had to deal with the Quakers, who do not swear. (it was important to reach an agreement with the Quakers, since they controlled PA, which included Philadelphia, the city that spawned much of the revoluationary zeal). Quakers do "affirm", and that's why that text is in the Constitution. No law requires (or even suggests) the use of the Bible.
"The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the
several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the
United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation,
to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a
qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

I couldn't even read the comments on the various articles and blogs posted about this topic. The level of bile and venom spewed by some posters is simply amazing.

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