Dispatches from the Creation Wars

For sheer imbecility, it’s gonna be awfully hard to top this column by Dennis Prager objecting to Muslim congressman Keith Ellison swearing his oath of office on the Quran. He manages to bring both the stupid and the crazy right from the first paragraphs:

Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress, has announced that he will not take his oath of office on the Bible, but on the bible of Islam, the Koran.

He should not be allowed to do so — not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization.

I’ll take naked assertions for $1000, Alex. How exactly will this undermine American civilization, and what does that phrase even mean? He doesn’t say, of course. What, you expect reasoned arguments? Silly man. This is a purely emotional polemical screed.

First, it is an act of hubris that perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism — my culture trumps America’s culture. What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book; all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.

How absurd. The only hubris present in this situation is coming from loons like Prager, who think that they have the authority to decide what others must believe in and what rituals they must perform in order to stay in their good graces. It’s their hubris that motivates them to deny to others their most deeply held beliefs and practices in the name of advancing their own.

Here’s what i find so idiotic about this whole thing. There are really only two positions on such oaths: you either believe they mean something, that they actually have something to do with whether a person actually supports the Constitution, or you believe, as I do, that they are absolutely meaningless. But if you believe that they are meaningful, then the reason can only be that they mean something because by swearing on a holy book one is making a pledge to God, a pledge in the name of their most sacred beliefs, and that such a pledge has more meaning and is more likely to be followed than one who merely makes a promise. This is the same kind of thinking that says that if you “pinky swear” or spit in the palm of your hand before shaking hands, that means more than just saying you’ll do something.

But the point is that if you think swearing an oath on a holy book is a meaningful exercise, then in order to be consistent you must recognize the futility and absurdity of requiring someone to swear on a holy book that they don’t believe in. If such a ceremony actually has meaning, if it actually does correlate with one’s faithfulness in carrying out their duties, then the worst possible thing you could do is require someone to swear such an oath on a holy book whose sacredness the person does not accept; in doing so, you’ve already established right up front that his oath has no meaning to him, at least, because he is willing to play a dishonest game of pretend right up front.

Personally, I think all such oaths are meaningless. President Bush placed his hands on a Bible and swore the oath required by the Constitution:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Unfortunately, that was about the last time he actually followed the constitution. His oath, declared with his hand on the Bible, didn’t stop him from ignoring one constitutional provision after another. 4th amendment? Warrants? We don’t need no stinkin’ warrants. Only Congress can suspend habeas corpus? Pshaw. The “unitary executive” can do whatever he wants and neither Congress nor the courts can do anything about. Bush’s oath of office meant less than nothing to him and that Bible didn’t do a damn thing to change that.

I say forget holy books. The constitution has no provision at all for any holy books in such an oath anyway, it only requires that the oath be sworn. If you want to require politicians to swear on something, have them swear on a copy of the Constitution. Then give them a copy of it and maybe give them a test on its provisions as well; and until you can pass a test on what the Constitution says, you don’t get to cast a vote in Congress (for that matter, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote in an election either, in my view).

I couldn’t possibly care any less what book someone swears on when taking the oath of office. I don’t care if Ellison swears his oath with his hand on a stack of Archie comic books. What I care about is whether they actually follow the Constitution. But it seems to me that if you think such oaths mean something and indicate something about whether one is likely to do so, then the last thing you should be demanding is that someone be forced to be disingenuous in the process of taking the oath.

Comments

  1. #1 lettuce
    November 28, 2006

    I don’t know about Archie comic books, that thing on Jughead’s noggin looks suspiciously like a crown.

    I believe we fought a war over that, I’d have to wonder about the loyalty of anyone who would swear on a stack of Archies.

    Now, the Green Lantern. That I could get behnd.

  2. #2 ArtK
    November 28, 2006

    Ed… do you know of any cases where someone has refused to swear with their hand on a book? I’d imagine that if someone pressed the issue, it would be struck down as an unconstitutional religious test.

  3. #3 El Christador
    November 28, 2006

    Trivia: in a book Canadian Cases in the Philosophy of Law I read about a case in which the issue of whether an atheist could be sworn in to testify in court was settled. In Canadian law, obviously. The problem, of course, being that an oath would be meaningless to an atheist as they would have no fear of God’s wrath if they lied under oath. It must have been a fairly old case. The upshot of the case was that the court ruled atheists could be sworn in and testify under oath. I think the reasoning was that without it they would simply be denied all legal rights, which was not on. I believe the term “affirmed” gets used in lieu of “sworn in”.

  4. #4 kehrsam
    November 28, 2006

    Jesus, of course, believed one should not swear oaths at all. Something about the 4th Commandment. Mt 5:33 et seq.

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    November 28, 2006

    ArtK wrote:

    Ed… do you know of any cases where someone has refused to swear with their hand on a book? I’d imagine that if someone pressed the issue, it would be struck down as an unconstitutional religious test.

    There isn’t any law to strike down. The use of the Bible is not required. The Constitution mentions it nowhere. It’s just a tradition, and no politician is going to refuse to do it because they’d never be elected again.

  6. #6 mark
    November 28, 2006

    It’s been said before, but it’s the response I prefer–I’d like to see the fellow taking the oath grab his balls and testify. However, that may not work for women and republicans.

  7. #7 Markus
    November 28, 2006

    If I ever get elected to a position that requires swearing in, I’ll be sure to use The God Delusion.

  8. #8 Pieter B
    November 28, 2006

    I’ve known for a long time that Prager was a pseudointellectual prat, but this is far and away the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen him spew. When I first saw it in an email at lunchtime, I thought it was a fake.

    Prager recently had a “debate” with Sam Harris; I guess he used that to warm up for this pile of manure.

  9. #9 Gerard Harbison
    November 28, 2006

    Article VI, for Prager and other constitutionally ignorant people. Pun intended

    The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, 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.

  10. #10 The Ridger
    November 28, 2006

    Just out of curiosity, I’m sure no Jewish congressfolk have sworn on the Christian Bible, but did Prager & Co. go berserk over that?

  11. #11 Gerard Harbison
    November 28, 2006

    I haven’t been able to find what Joe Lieberman or Barney Frank used, but I have found pictorial evidence Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in without a Bible, or indeed, any book.

    http://www.buffalohistoryworks.com/panamex/assassination/page2.htm

  12. #12 Gerard Harbison
    November 28, 2006

    I haven’t been able to find what Joe Lieberman or Barney Frank used, but I have found pictorial evidence Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in without a Bible, or indeed, any book.

    http://www.buffalohistoryworks.com/panamex/assassination/page2.htm

  13. #13 DuWayne
    November 28, 2006

    Damn, Gerard, don’t you realize how un-American it is to slap morons like this with the Constitution? I mean that’s gotta make you a French anarchist at least.

    Reading the rest of his screed was interesting to say the least. Apparently the Quran is simply Ellison’s favorite book, not a sacred text of his religion. From that standpoint he almost makes sense. It would be silly, if I were elected to some office and took my oath on a copy of Huxley’s Brave New World, or Herbert’s Dune – my two favorite books.

  14. #14 kehrsam
    November 28, 2006

    Just out of curiosity, I’m sure no Jewish congressfolk have sworn on the Christian Bible, but did Prager & Co. go berserk over that?

    Prager is Jewish, I doubt he sees this as much of a problem.

  15. #15 Grumpy
    November 28, 2006

    I’m with Pieter B. Prager usually at least pretends to sound intelligent, even if his attempts at logic lead him to ridiculous conclusions.

  16. #16 kehrsam
    November 28, 2006

    An interesting viewpoint on this issue from the always excellent commentary on Orsinus:

    http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/11/take-our-sheckels-and-accept-our.html

  17. #17 Bob
    November 28, 2006

    Although he was discussing blasephemy laws, I think J.S. Mill addresses the current issue well in on Ch. 2 of ‘on Liberty”:
    This refusal of redress took place in virtue of the legal doctrine, that no person can be allowed to give evidence in a court of justice, who does not profess belief in a God (any god is sufficient) and in a future state; which is equivalent to declaring such persons to be outlaws, excluded from the protection of the tribunals; who may not only be robbed or assaulted with impunity, if no one but themselves, or persons of similar opinions, be present, but any one else may be robbed or assaulted with impunity, if the proof of the fact depends on their evidence. The assumption on which this is grounded, is that the oath is worthless, of a person who does not believe in a future state; a proposition which betokens much ignorance of history in those who assent to it (since it is historically true that a large proportion of infidels in all ages have been persons of distinguished integrity and honor); and would be maintained by no one who had the smallest conception how many of the persons in greatest repute with the world, both for virtues and for attainments, are well known, at least to their intimates, to be unbelievers. The rule, besides, is suicidal, and cuts away its own foundation. Under pretence that atheists must be liars, it admits the testimony of all atheists who are willing to lie, and rejects only those who brave the obloquy of publicly confessing a detested creed rather than affirm a falsehood. A rule thus self-convicted of absurdity so far as regards its professed purpose, can be kept in force only as a badge of hatred, a relic of persecution; a persecution, too, having the peculiarity, that the qualification for undergoing it, is the being clearly proved not to deserve it. The rule, and the theory it implies, are hardly less insulting to believers than to infidels. For if he who does not believe in a future state, necessarily lies, it follows that they who do believe are only prevented from lying, if prevented they are, by the fear of hell.

  18. #18 Ian H Spedding FCD
    November 28, 2006

    Gerard Harbison wrote:

    … but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

    …other than to discover if a candidate be agnostic or atheist, apparently.

  19. #19 raj
    November 29, 2006

    From the post

    Personally, I think all such oaths are meaningless. President Bush placed his hands on a Bible and swore the oath required by the Constitution:…

    I didn’t watch any of Shrub’s swearing in ceremonies, but I’d almost be willing to bet that he added “so help me god” to the end of the oath. It wouldn’t have been unusual if he had done so.

  20. #20 jpf
    November 29, 2006

    I didn’t watch any of Shrub’s swearing in ceremonies, but I’d almost be willing to bet that he added “so help me god” to the end of the oath. It wouldn’t have been unusual if he had done so.

    You’d win that bet.

    Interestingly, Cheney (who also added “so help me God”) swore in using his family Bible, but it’s not clear from the transcript if Bush (who swore in second, after a musical interlude), didn’t use the same one.

    Also note that just prior to the swearing-in, the right Reverend Franklin Graham dedicated the proceedings to Jesus Christ, our Lord, our Savior and our Redeemer.

    Does Prager know that he now knows how the rest of us feel?

  21. #21 tacitus
    November 29, 2006

    I made the mistake of looking on wingnut Free Republic to see what reaction this article was getting. I don’t believe I’ve seen such a xenophobic heap of bile and hatred aimed towards one person in quite some time. And considering how much they hate the Clintons, that’s saying something.

  22. #22 wheatdogg
    November 29, 2006

    Quakers (and others, I presume) can opt to affirm they are telling the truth, rather than swearing an oath, since Friends have a testimony against swearing oaths. No book needed.

  23. #23 Dave
    November 29, 2006

    Wheatdogg,

    that raises the question (and I’m not curious enought to look for myself) what did Nixon do? Clearly, Nixon wasn’t a Quaker of the non-violent/anti-war stripe and I would guess that he was mercenary enough that he didn’t care what he swore his oath upon

  24. #24 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 29, 2006

    Robert O’Brien Trophy Winner: Dennis Prager

    You know, this just doesn’t come across right. I suggest in the future you refer to the Robert O’Brien Trophy Loser.

  25. #25 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 29, 2006

    These office holders were elected by the people to serve the interests of the people and the nation. It seems a conflict of interest for them to be swearing oaths to any other party. I recall a quote, I conveniently cannot remember the source: No man may serve two masters.

  26. #26 Ginger Yellow
    November 29, 2006

    Prager is a paid up member of Jews for Jesus, isn’t he? He’s certainly written many times about how Jews should learn from evangelicals and proselytise to the common enemy: dirty socialist atheists.

  27. #27 Prup aka Jim Benton
    November 29, 2006

    I glanced at the column — didn’t have time or stomach for the coments — and wonder how wrong he is about Mormons swearing on the BOOK OF MORMON. Any Utahans know if this is true. (Of course, Mormons claim to be Christians as well, and to accept the Old and New testament, so I guess they could use the Bible, but do they?

  28. #28 jba
    November 29, 2006

    Prup:

    Im not sure if they do, but it wouldnt surprise me in the slightest if they swear on a bible. They use the King James version as scripture and very much want to be considered christian.

  29. #29 jba
    November 29, 2006

    I should probably add to my above post ‘considered christian by everyone’. as Prup said, they consider themselves christian.

  30. #30 kehrsam
    November 29, 2006

    JBA: From an historical perspective, the LDS church has largely insisted that they are not Christian. It is only in the last few years as antagonism with traditional Christian churches have faded that the LDS has tried to join the mainstream.

  31. #31 jba
    November 29, 2006

    Kehrsam:

    Not that I dont believe you (I only know what I was taught as a child and the research I did prior to divorcing myself from the church), but do you know when they started trying to join the mainstream? I was raised Mormon (Im only 28 so it wasnt a long time ago) and I was always told that the religion was christian. Also all of the people in the chruch always referred to themselves that way. I would be interested to know when they made the switch, such as it were.

  32. #32 kehrsam
    November 29, 2006

    All editions of the Book of Mormon were titled the ‘Book of Mormon’ until 1982 when the subtitle “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” was added. So I would suggest that the change occurred about that time.

    The statements of LDS leaders have been inconsistent, but have included the following:

    “Should you ask why we differ from other Christians, as they are called, it is simply because they are not Christians as the New Testament defines Christianity” (Journal of Discourses, 10:230) (Brigham Young);

    “Both Catholics and Protestants are nothing less than the ‘whore of Babylon’ whom the Lord denounces by the mouth of John the Revelator as having corrupted all the earth by their fornications and wickedness. Any person who shall be so corrupt as to receive a holy ordinance of the Gospel from the ministers of any of these apostate churches will be sent down to hell with them, unless they repent” (The Seer, p. 255). (Orson Pratt);

    “Virtually all the millions of apostate Christendom have abased themselves before the mythical throne of a mythical Christ. Bruce McConkey in “Mormon Doctrine,” sorry, I don’t have a page cite;

    “This is not just another Church. This is not just one of a family of Christian churches. This is the Church and kingdom of God, the only true Church upon the face of the earth…” Ezra Taft Benton, “Teachings,” p.164-5.

    So the claim that they are just another Christian church is a recent innovation; formerly they professed to be the only true Christian church. I was planning on attending the Southern Baptist national convention in Salt Lake City a few years back and did a bit of research, but seem to have lost most of it. The above quotes are taken from a hand-written notebook, so I do not vauch for their being exact, nor do I recall if they are taken from the works referenced or some secondary source. I used to own the Benson and McConkey books, so those should be acurate. Interesting question!

  33. #33 Anuminous
    November 29, 2006

    Having also been raised in the same Mormon household as jba (s’up, bro), I got the same selections of church history as he did. My feeling was always not that they denied being Christian, but that there was a huge ‘only true Scot^H^H^H^H Christian’ chip on their shoulder. After all, those traditional Christians were missing huge portions of The Revealed Word! It seems similar to the way some Protestants will call Catholics papists and idolaters.

  34. #34 Anuminous
    November 29, 2006

    Hm, yes kehrsam. I should have refreshed before commenting :)

  35. #35 jba
    November 29, 2006

    Thanks kehrsam, thats interesting stuff, some of it quite differant than what I learned in sunday school. I dont mean to hijack the thread and run it off topic, lest Ed smack me, but I always found it interesting that Mormonism has changed so drasticly and so rapidly while claiming all of its tenents are eternal. Mormonism has never been at war with Eastasia.

  36. #36 The Ridger
    November 29, 2006

    I said

    Just out of curiosity, I’m sure no Jewish congressfolk have sworn on the Christian Bible, but did Prager & Co. go berserk over that?

    and Kehrsam responded

    Prager is Jewish, I doubt he sees this as much of a problem.

    Clearly, I meant to say “…did Ellison & Co. go berserk…”. Damn.

  37. #37 The Ridger
    November 29, 2006

    No, dammit, that’s not what I meant to say, either. What I meant to say was, is Prager actually wanting everyone to swear on a Bible? Or is it just the Quran he objects to? But I should probably quit before I become even more incoherent than I already am…

  38. #38 kehrsam
    November 29, 2006

    Ridger, you’re doing fine. I think it is clear from Prager’s article he means that since this country was founded on the Bible, that’s what you should swear on. And I imagine the Christian Bible is just fine in his eyes, but Torah would work quite well.

    I’ve always kind of liked Prager for his defense of western civilization in general, but he tends to take it to ridiculous degrees. For all its warts, western civ has brought us to this point where we can have notions like freedom and such. But he is being disingenuous whenever he suggests that the Judeochristian religion had much to do with that. And I say that as a believer.

  39. #39 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 29, 2006

    but I always found it interesting that Mormonism has changed so drasticly and so rapidly while claiming all of its tenents are eternal.

    All churches have done that, to various degrees at various times. The Christian church worked out its doctrine over centuries by suppressing one heretical sect after another. Then there’s the whole geocentric thing.

  40. #40 Coin
    November 29, 2006
    but I always found it interesting that Mormonism has changed so drasticly and so rapidly while claiming all of its tenents are eternal.

    All churches have done that, to various degrees at various times.

    I’m finding the currently-ongoing image transformation of the Unification Church particularly interesting to watch.

  41. #41 jba
    November 29, 2006

    Mustafa:

    Hm, thats true I suppose. Maybe its just that Mormonism has done it so much quicker and so much more recently than say, Catholiscm, so its easier to notice (although I do realize that the CC is changing even as we speak, but from what I have seen they are acknowledging it as change). Or it might just be that Ive payed more attention to it, having thrust upon me for much of my life. Hm. Im going to have to give this some thought.

  42. #42 wheatdogg
    November 29, 2006

    Dave —
    AFAIK, Nixon swore on the Bible. He was a “lapsed” Quaker, you might say, and probably didn’t hold to his mother’s religion’s testimonies that much (as we may have witnessed).

    Also, his family was from the western states, where Friends’ principles and worship practices got comingled with Methodism.

    In Kentucky, which is not known for its huge Quaker population, people in court are asked if they will “swear or affirm” they will tell the truth. It may be true elsewhere.

  43. #43 kehrsam
    November 29, 2006

    Wheatdogg: Here in NC, the Bailiff asks if “You swear to tell the whole truth,” etc, but if you don’t want to swear, you answer, “I do so affirm.” I imagine every jurisdiction has its own sort of accommodation.

  44. #44 Jake
    November 29, 2006

    Then give them a copy of it and maybe give them a test on its provisions as well; and until you can pass a test on what the Constitution says, you don’t get to cast a vote in Congress (for that matter, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote in an election either, in my view).

    That sounds nice, but it reminds me of the time before the Voting Rights Act, where arbitrary tests were administered before people were allowed to register. They did this to keep blacks from voting.

  45. #45 Ed Brayton
    November 29, 2006

    Jake wrote:

    That sounds nice, but it reminds me of the time before the Voting Rights Act, where arbitrary tests were administered before people were allowed to register. They did this to keep blacks from voting.

    What I suggest is nothing like that. I think there should be a single national civics exam required before one can vote. Nothing arbitrary about it, or aimed at anything other than ignorance.

  46. #46 Todd Larason
    November 29, 2006

    Just out of curiosity, I’m sure no Jewish congressfolk have sworn on the Christian Bible, but did Prager & Co. go berserk over that?

    I see you meant to ask about Ellison rather than Prager, but the answer to your original question is interesting too: he doesn’t go berserk over it, he just explicitely denies it happens:

    But 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, and the many secular elected officials have not believed in the Old Testament either. Yet those secular officials did not demand to take their oaths of office on, say, the collected works of Voltaire or on a volume of New York Times editorials, writings far more significant to some liberal members of Congress than the Bible. Nor has one Mormon official demanded to put his hand on the Book of Mormon.

    Now a different question: although the constitution only requires an oath or affirmation to support the constitution, the oath specified in current law (for everyone except the President, whose full oath is given in the constitution) ends with “So help me God”: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode05/usc_sec_05_00003331—-000-.html

    How is that not a real religious test? I’m guessing it’s just that nobody’s ever challenged it, since it’s hard to be a viable candidate without being a professed monotheist. There’s a Buddhist congressperson-elect, though; I wonder if he’ll be willing to give the oath as specified?

  47. #47 MikeQ
    November 30, 2006

    Ed, interesting point on being required to know the consitution before voting. In neuroscience and system’s learning this is an idea known as “hebbian learning.” It’s very simple: In any system where votes are to be weighed and an outcome or course of action decided on, votes from sources that have previously been correct carry more weight than votes from sources that have previously been wrong.

    To extend the idea to US politics today, under a Hebbian learning system republican office holders and republican districts would have less power per vote than their democratic counterparts. The reason is that the Iraq War, tax cut, profligate spending, abuse of civil liberties, dishonesty in discourse and political thuggery can be laid directly at their feet. Thus, the strength of your vote is tied to the outcome of your previous votes.

    It’s an ideal democratic system. Everyone starts off equally, and then is judged by their merits. Hebbian learning is also an incredibly easy rule to follow. Too bad it’s not practical today, because an extra helping of accountability sure would help our political system today.

  48. #48 MJ Memphis
    November 30, 2006

    “There’s a Buddhist congressperson-elect, though; I wonder if he’ll be willing to give the oath as specified?”

    Actually, there are two of them- one from Hawaii (no big surprise), and the other from Georgia(!)- not sure how that happened.

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