“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain…thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” - Exodus 20:6, 12; Deuteronomy 5:10, 16.
"It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.” - Aeschylus
LAS VEGAS – When Dennis Prager agreed to address the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) here, he could hardly have envisioned the imbroglio now entangling him.
But true to form, the conservative talk show host did not shy away from the disagreement on the right, in the Jewish world, and across America bred by his controversial column criticizing a newly-elected Muslim congressman for announcing his intention to take the oath of office on the Koran.
In the article, entitled “America, not Keith Ellison, decides what book a congressman takes his oath on,” Prager reasserted the centrality of the Bible in American life and decried our hurtling toward a fateful collision with a relativistic multiculturalism in which the members of every group, no matter how revolting their belief systems, enjoyed the right to swear on their own personal “holy book.”
Needless to say, the column immediately sparked outrage—much of it genuine but some of it deeply problematic.
Especially repugnant was the indignation of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group reportedly linked to front organizations for Hamas and other terrorists; CAIR’s spokesman, Ibrahim Hooper, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in1993 that “I wouldn’t want to create the impression that I wouldn’t like the government of the United States to be Islamic sometime in the future…But I'm not going to do anything violent to promote that. I'm going to do it through education.” These plainly are not the paragons of moderate Islam we should be seeking to support.
Nevertheless, CAIR has called for Prager’s ouster as a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. CAIR’s desire should be resisted not only because of the impure motives of the messenger but on the merits of the message itself.
Rivaling CAIR for over-the-top denunciations was the (Jewish) Anti-Defamation League, which blasted Prager as “intolerant, misinformed and downright un-American.” Former New York Mayor Ed Koch also outdid himself, calling Prager a bigot.
But these condemnations miss the mark—badly. Perhaps unknown to (or ignored by) many is Prager’s clarification of the opinions he initially expressed in his column.
First, he has stated that Ellison should not be forced to swear on the Bible, nor should he be denied office if he declines to do so, nor should Congress pass legislation (or even a constitutional amendment) requiring that oaths of office be taken on the Bible.
Second, he has acknowledged that he would not object if Ellison brought the Bible, along with the Koran, to his swearing-in ceremony.
Finally, he has made it abundantly clear (to anyone actually listening) that his commentary does not single out Muslims. On the contrary: he believes that elected officials of all faiths or of no faith should take their oaths on the Bible.
In short, Prager’s admittedly provocative column was not utterly unreasonable. Indeed, he has said that he’s “happy [he’s] engendered a debate about the role of the Bible in American life.” He freely acknowledged that the debate is “all symbolic,” centering around one seminal question: “what text will we derive our values from? It must be something besides just the Constitution.”
Yet while Prager makes several important points, and while you often know a man by his enemies, his column misfires in many respects.
Prager’s friend, ideological soul-mate, and fellow talk-show host Michael Medved provided a pointed, though respectful, rebuttal of many of Prager’s arguments. Eugene Volokh offered an incisive legal-historical exposition of the importance of swearing on a book that one subjectively considers holy in order to ensure that one takes the oath with due solemnity. These cogent critiques needn’t be rehearsed.
Instead, from both practical and secular standpoints, we should applaud the election of the first Muslim to Congress. At the same time, we should not applaud the election of this particular Muslim: in addition to being a liberal Democrat firmly opposed to the Iraq War, he is a former (albeit ostensibly repentant) member of the hate group The Nation of Islam; he even once denied that Louis Farrakhan was an anti-Semite.
Still, while Ellison is an imperfect vessel, we shouldn’t toss out the wine too (so to speak). His election will embolden moderate Muslims who are now further reassured that America welcomes people of all faiths who are committed to the ideals of our democratic republic.
At the conference, Prager himself observed that “treatment of Muslims in our society is incalculably better than the treatment of non-Muslims in Muslim lands. Just ask the Copts in Egypt, the Maronites in Lebanon, and the Jews everywhere in the Muslim Middle East.” For the same reason, welcoming Muslim elected officials reinforces our dedication to tolerance.
But the reasons for accommodating Ellison’s desire to swear on the Koran go beyond the pragmatic to the sublime.
The most potent retort to Prager’s argument, one to which he and his critics alike give short shrift, is the importance of religious authenticity. For Keith Ellison or any believing non-Christian, swearing on the Christian Bible is tantamount to violating, if not repudiating, one’s own faith.
The Bible itself repeatedly enjoins us not to swear falsely. God—whether He’s the God of Moses, of Jesus, or of Mohammed—takes our oaths rather seriously and, He often reminds us, we must do the same. This is why some Christian groups such as Quakers and Mennonites, as well as many Jews, decline to take public oaths altogether (hence the alternative of “affirming” one’s intention to tell the truth).
And it’s not as if this is the first dispute about swearing on books other than the Christian Bible.
First, the Christian Science Monitor reported last year that a North Carolina judge refused to let a witness take her oath upon the Muslim holy book. The article observed that:
Already, witnesses in American courts do not have to take a religious oath and can instead simply testify on pain of perjury. It’s up to judges to decide what passes for an oath.
Most have apparently given other oaths wide latitude. In a federal terrorism case in 1997 in Washington D.C., for instance, the judge allowed Muslim witnesses to swear to Allah. And the practice isn’t new: Mochitura Hashimoto, the Japanese submarine commander who testified in the court martial of a US Navy captain in 1945, was allowed by a military tribunal to swear on his beliefs of Shinto, the ancient religion of Japan.
While, to be sure, allowing witnesses to swear to Allah in a terrorism case is rather unsettling, it doesn’t necessarily have to be.
Second, a few years ago, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), who is Jewish, declined to take her oath of office on the Christian Bible, opting for the Old Testament instead. According to the Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Chabad group then began
distribut[ing] the Hebrew Bible to Jewish lawmakers. They plan to do so again before the lawmakers are sworn in next year, and to provide one to the [House] speaker’s office.
“It would be difficult to make somebody swear or affirm by on something they don’t religiously identify with,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of Chabad’s Washington office.
This, in a nutshell, is the best rebuttal of Prager’s argument. Forget, for a moment, that the swearing ceremony on the Bible is purely symbolic. Forget that Prager said he would have no complaints if Ellison also brought a Koran to the ritual, so long as a Bible was present. The question is this: why would we, as a society, want to ensure the presence at the oath ceremony of a holy book that contravenes the swearer’s beliefs?
Essentially, in striving to reintroduce the importance of Biblical values, Prager actually (if unwittingly) undermines them.
In the end, we might consider Aeschylus’s axiom that “it is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.” Keith Ellison’s performance in the Congress will reflect upon the Koran and American Muslims far more than his swearing on the Koran reflects upon him.
In order to reinforce true moderation among Ellison’s coreligionists, we should welcome him to elected office, not because Ellison himself is a paragon of virtue (he isn’t) but because, like it or not, he has come to embody the hopes and aspirations of moderate Muslims. Even Dennis Prager would most likely agree that encouraging such moderation is the greater good.
Michael M. Rosen is an attorney in San Diego.
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