"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."


December 21, 2006

It is amusing that right-wing pundit Dennis Prager sees as an “act [that] undermines American civilization” Keith Ellison’s intended use of the Koran at a private ceremony after he is sworn in as a representative of Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District in the 110th Congress of the United States of America, scheduled to convene on January 4, 2007.

Prager’s comments on this “controversy,” which he created singlehandedly, have been a hash of misstatements, inaccuracies, and absurdities. For example, Prager claimed that “for all of American history, Jews elected to public office have taken their oath on the Bible, even though they do not believe in the New Testament,” when in fact, as recently as last year, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL 20th), who is Jewish, asked House Speaker Dennis Hastert to use a copy of the Old Testament,” and House Speaker Dennis Hastert “sent aides scrambling to find a copy” (The Hill, Jan. 5, 2005). Was American civilization undermined on that occasion?

As the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement issued on Dec. 1, 2006, “No Member of Congress is officially sworn in with a Bible. Under House rules, the official swearing-in ceremony is done in the House chambers, with the Speaker of the House administering the oath of office en masse. No Bibles or other holy books are used at all.” The Constitution, moverover, specifically bars any religious screening of members of Congress, Article VI stipulating that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” As for the use of the Bible or Koran, this occurs only in private ceremonial events after lawmakers have officially sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution.

The latest spin to this silly controversy comes with the news that this month Rep. Virgil Goode (rhymes with ‘mood’) (R-VA 5th) sent a letter, dated Dec. 5, to hundreds of voters, warning that the election of Keith Ellison shows that Americans need to “wake up” lest there “be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran” (Rachel L. Swarns, “Congressman Criticizes Election of Muslim,” New York Times, December 21, 2006, p. A19).

United for Peace of Pierce County applauds the way in which Rep. Keith Ellison has responded to this controversy. “’I’m not a religious scholar, I’m a politician, and I do what politicians do, which is hopefully pass legislation to help the nation,’ said Mr. Ellison, who said he planned to focus on secular issues like increasing the federal minimum wage and getting health insurance for the uninsured. ‘I’m looking forward to making friends with Representative Goode, or at least getting to know him,’ Mr. Ellison said, speaking by telephone from Minneapolis. ‘I want to let him know that there’s nothing to fear. The fact that there are many different faiths, many different colors and many different cultures in America is a great strength’” (Ibid.).

The problem with Prager and Goode is not mere bigotry. The problem is, rather, an ideological belief often known as American exceptionalism, first described by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. This mythic belief in national uniqueness has sometimes encouraged Americans to strive for high ideals. But it has steered other minds toward paranoia. And it has spawned prejudice against a long line of groups, with Masons, Catholics (especially Jesuits), many immigrant groups, and “radicals” of every stripe prominent among them. Historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) warned that “certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. . . . Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest -- perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands -- are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power -- and this through distorting lenses -- and have no chance to observe its actual machinery” (“The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine [November 1964]).

United for Peace of Pierce County, which has conducted many study circles exploring Islam both past and present, celebrates the election of Keith Ellison as the first Muslim elected to the federal government and the highest Muslim elected official in the United States. Born into an American family that traces its American roots to 1742 and that was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Keith Ellison is an exemplary American. We applaud both Ellison’s service to the nation and his patience and magnanimity in responding to Prager, Goode, and like-minded bigots. A hopeful way forward for the United States in the world of the 21st century requries clear-sighted vision both of American ideals and American realities, and on this score Keith Ellison is far in advance of either Dennis Prager or Virgil Goode.


"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."