Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Keith Ellison and the Koran Controversy

The debate over Keith Ellison's decision to take the oath of office is such a non-issue and silly discussion that I've basically ignored it up until now. The Washington Post today pointed out that Representative Ellison would be sworn in on a copy of the Koran which is an english translation that was owned by Thomas Jefferson. Washington Monthly praised the decision by Ellison saying "Good for Ellison. Sounds like he's a pretty smart cookie," but never really expalaining what about this move makes him a smart cookie. They are correct, this is a smart move, but only because it answers the criticism without actually engaging the argument (an argument that in my view isnt worth engaging).

At the heart of this discussion lies the provision in Article 6 of the Constitution which provides that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." This is one of only two places in the entire Constitution where religionis mentioned, the other of course being within the First Amendment in the establishment and free excercise clauses. The religious test provision dates back to Jefferson's Statute of Religious Freedom adopted by the State of Virginia in 1786 after James Madison introduced the provision. The major provisions of this statute (those mentioned already, religious tests and the first amendment) were included in the United States Constitution. The major proponent of these provisions was undoubtedly Jefferson, who wrote about religious tests in his autobiography:
"[the religious test] was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohometan, the Hindoo, and the infidel of every denomination."

It seems that we're reliving the same arguments that were settled by 1791 through Mr. Ellison's obvious decision to swear in upon the Koran. Using Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Koran serves as a reminder that our country has already had this fight, and that he has an absolute right to be sworn in on the holy book of his faith, Jefferson and others who supported these provisions felt that we could not afford to become a Christian Nation, after waves of immigrants and the clear reality that the United States is a pluralistic country, now more than ever it is important to uphold Jefferson's vision of what our country would be in this regard. For as a nation of immigrants there is not even any national faith to turn to, far more than in 1786 Americans are Hindus, Muslims, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and anything else that one can think of. If it was relevent enough to include in the Constitution then, it is far more relevent today. Keith Ellison's decision gives us a subtle reminder of this history as the religious right tries to bring back the days before the Constitution of religious tests.

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