Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dennis Prager really is an ass

Andrew Sullivan linked to this inanity from Dennis Prager: "America, Not Keith Ellison, decides what book Keith Ellison takes his oath on." Keith Ellison is a newly-elected Congressman from Minnesota, the first Muslim in Congress, and he's said that he'll take his oath of office on the Quran. Well, duh, he's a Muslim. Why on earth would a Muslim swear on a Bible? And, contrary to Prager's headline, America doesn't decide what book Keith Ellison takes his oath on. I can't refute any law Prager cites in defense of his position, because he doesn't cite any law. He doesn't cite any law in his defense because no such law exists. In fact, the Constitution itself, in Article VI, comes right out and says:
The Senators and Representatives ... 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.
A Sullivan reader notes further that
The very first law passed under the Constitution was ... "An Act to regulate the Time and Manner of administering certain Oaths." That law says nothing about what someone taking the oath of office is supposed to do with his hands; nor does it say anything about Bibles or any other books being involved in the process.
I took an oath of office myself two years ago when working for the City of Pico Rivera and was only asked to raise my right hand while reciting it. My understanding is that courts regularly use Qurans, Bibles, or an absence of books, depending on the swearer's preference.

After arguing essentially that Christianity is the state religion of the U.S., based on nothing but vigorous assertion, Prager (a Jew, actually) then just appeals to tradition, noting that Jews and atheists have taken their oaths on Bibles that they do not believe in. I have no idea if this is true or not*, but in making this argument, Prager has gone from offending me as an American to offending me as a Christian. What he's saying is that the Bible should be used not because the oath-taker believes it is the holy word of God, but merely because of its symbolic link with tradition. Sorry, bud, but to me the Bible is more than just a prop, and if my representative in Congress didn't believe in it, I would be more offended if they did use a Bible than if they didn't.

It's also worth noting that Prager isn't just an anti-American pro-blasphemy moron, but goes out of his way to be inflammatory. He doesn't just object to Ellison's use of the Quran, he says it "undermines American civilization" and compares it to Hitler's Mein Kampf. Some of his commenters are worse, lumping Ellison in with the Islamic theocrats and terrorists who hate America and want to see us destroyed. No, you idiots, Keith Ellison is precisely the kind of man I'd like to see more of in the Middle East, a leader who understands that being a Muslim doesn't mean you have to oppose democracy and religious freedom.

*This article notes that atheist California governor Culbert L. Olson omitted the words "so help me God" from his oath of office, but doesn't note whether he used a Bible.

Update: Eugene Volokh writes eloquently on the subject. Excerpt:
Much folly has been urged in the name of multiculturalism. But this is no reason to dismiss the core notion that a nation should both create a common culture and leave people with the freedom to retain important aspects of other cultures — especially religious cultures.


At Wednesday, November 29, 2006 at 12:37:00 PM PST, Blogger Victor said...

I think what Prager's getting at is not so much wanting Ellison to take his oath on a Bible (yes, that would be retarded for exactly the reasons you state) but his wanting to swear on some other book. One of his choice, presumably, and that's what (I read) Prager's objection as. His bete-noire is actually multiculti individualism, not Islam.

He's not comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf, he's saying "if the nation allows people to choose their 'oath book,' what argument is there against allowing someone to use Mein Kampf" (or Dianetics, an example he cites, or the Torah, which he doesn't but could). Which isn't the same argument at all. He also points out that people who are not Christians have always had an alternative -- affirming, which doesn't involve the use of "a holy book of the person's choice." (And THAT is really what he opposes.)

At Wednesday, November 29, 2006 at 1:04:00 PM PST, Blogger Adam Villani said...

But what's wrong with a person using a holy book of their choice? If someone was elected to Congress who chose to swore on a copy of Mein Kampf, the problem would go a lot farther than that person's inauguration.

Furthermore, Prager's just wrong as a matter of fact. If he were to phrase things as "America should determine what book Ellison uses" rather than "America determines what book he uses," then at least he'd just be stating a bad opinion rather than conflating it with fact.

At Wednesday, November 29, 2006 at 11:44:00 PM PST, Blogger Victor said...

If someone was elected to Congress who chose to swore on a copy of Mein Kampf, the problem would go a lot farther than that person's inauguration.

Well ... clearly so.

But to answer your question, "what's wrong" is that it puts the category "holy book" into the realm of "person's choice." Which constructs, and sanctifies with the aura of law, the self as the true sovereign (Victor says in the week of the feast of Christ the King).

As to Prager being wrong as a matter of fact and your does/should distinction, that relies too much on the formal law of a secular republic (about which yes, there is not a requirement ... Victor also says in the week of the feast of Christ the King). There is no doubt that as a matter of social culture, of expectation, that "taking an oath" has always meant the Bible, with "affirmation" as the alternative for "others." Yes, the United States is clearly a secular polity, but America is still a Christian society.

I'll bite the bullet. I would say that in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Red China, Turkey, India, Japan -- and I'm deliberately picking a variety of religions and formal secular orders -- I would not back a Christian office-holder (presuming he'd even be allowed) who sought to demand that he take office by swearing on a Bible. That would be to undermine the social assumptions of the order.

At Thursday, November 30, 2006 at 12:08:00 AM PST, Anonymous Joshua said...

I don't believe Prager is a bad guy, and he has been right about other things. But Prager got basically everything wrong in this column, as though he had never read the Article VI of the Constitution or the First Amendment. There are plenty of examples of Jewish officials being sworn in on the Hebrew Bible, contrary to Prager's comments. And the English courts since the year 1744 have allowed witnesses of diverse religions to give sworn testimony according to their own religion's practices of taking oaths. See this for more information.

At Thursday, November 30, 2006 at 12:21:00 AM PST, Anonymous Joshua said...

Victor, I think I understand where you are going with regard to the idea of unrestrained individualism and personal choice, but that doesn't really seem to apply here. Once it is given that Ellison is a Muslim, the idea that he would want to take an oath on the Quran follows directly from that. The Quran is a text over 1,300 years old which is considered sacred scripture by something like a billion people around the world, and is generally known as such.

What would be unrestrained personal choice would be somebody asking to take the oath on a copy of last week's Entertainment Weekly or something like that. And I would have a problem with that, because I would doubt the sincerity of someone who claimed that Entertainment Weekly reminded him of the importance of fulfilling his oath.


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