Thursday, January 04, 2007

Minn. rep upholds Jefferson ideal

By John Nichols

Despite a cynical campaign by those who would establish a religious test for holding office in these United States, newly elected Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison is swearing his oath of office today on the Quran.

The objections to allowing Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, to take the oath as he chooses were so absurd that they could easily be dismissed as a sideshow. But it would be dangerous to do so. For a number of years now, there has been a concerted effort by sincere if misguided religious zealots and conservative political strategists to redefine the American experiment as a Christian religious endeavor.

History does not provide even a soft grounding for this fantasy. The founders of the country were men and women of the Enlightenment who, while surely imperfect in their thoughts and deeds, wisely sought to burst the chains of what Thomas Jefferson referred to as "monkish ignorance and superstition."

They revolted against the divine right of kings, rejected the construct of state-sponsored religion and wrote a Constitution that not only guaranteed freedom of religion but stated: "The senators and representatives ... 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."The controversy over Ellison's desire to swear his oath on a Quran, which had been stoked by conservative commentators initially, reached something of a fever pitch when Virginia Congressman Virgil Goode, an otherwise obscure Republican, declared in a letter to a constituent, "I do not subscribe to using the Quran in any way. The Muslim representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran."

Goode pushed this line during several television appearances, even after it was pointed out to him that Ellison traced his family's roots in this country back at least to 1742.
Predictably, Goode found a forum on Fox News, where he stood by his statements and said, without a hint of irony, that "I wish more people would take a stand and stand up for the principles on which this country was founded."

What made Goode's ignorance of those founding principles remarkable was the fact that he represents Virginia's Albemarle County, where Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743.
Today, it is not Virgil Goode who pays tribute to Jefferson. It is Keith Ellison.

The new congressman from Minnesota is declaring his loyalty to the Constitution while clutching a copy of the Quran that was once owned by Jefferson. One of many Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist texts that the author of the Declaration of Independence donated to the Library of Congress at its founding, the Jefferson Quran has been lent to Ellison by the rare book and special collections division of the library.

This is not mere symbolism. Ellison understands the Jeffersonian impulse that underpins the American experiment.

"When I'm officially sworn in, I will do it the same exact way as every other congressperson-elect who was sworn in," explains the representative from Minneapolis. "We will all stand up and in unison lift our hand and swear to uphold that Constitution, and then later, in a private ceremony, of course, I'll put my hand on a book that is the basis of my faith, which is Islam, and I think that this is a beauty. This is a wonderful thing for our country because Jewish members will put their hands on the Torah. Mormon members will put their hand on the Book of Mormon. Catholic members will put their hand on the book of their choice, and members that don't want to put their hand on any book are also fully free to do that.

"That's the American way. ... I think the diversity of our country is a great strength. It's a good thing that we have people from all faiths and all cultures to come here."

Make no mistake, were Jefferson, Madison, George Mason or any of the other Virginians who put their hands to the task of forging an experiment in religious tolerance and liberty asked to choose between Goode and Ellison, those advocates for a "wall of separation" between church and state would not hesitate to pick Ellison.

Jefferson, who wrote extensively about his interest in and respect for Islam, would surely be honored to know that Ellison's hand will rest on the Quran that an enlightened founder bequeathed not just to the Library of Congress but to America.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times.

E-mail: jnichols@madison.comPublished: January 4, 2007

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