Should oath-taking on the Koran be allowed?

In response to the discussion about Dennis Prager and the Koran, Mark S. writes:

I agree with you that the U.S. should severely restrict immigration by Mohammedans (in fact, I think we should severely restrict all immigration). So I hope you will not feel dismay when I ask you, so I may appreciate your views better, whether you think (a) we ought to forbid a Mohammedan elected to government office in the U.S. to swear his oath of office on a Koran; and, if you answer “yes” to that, whether (b) we should forbid office-takers to affirm, rather than swear their oaths?

It seems to me that this whole question of oaths-of-office-on-Korans is a tempest in a teapot, and further, reflects many writers’ ignorance as to the purpose of the oath and the premises on which office-takers are asked to pledge it.

Lyndon Johnson, no Roman Catholic, swore his first Presidential oath on a Catholic missal rather than a Bible, due to some confusion aboard Air Force One after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. No one seriously thinks that Johnson evaded the oath or insulted his country by this circumstance.

I think we would do well to minimize the number of Mohammedans in this country. But I cannot see any principled, or even attractively expedient, reason to forbid Mohammedans duly elected to office to swear their oaths on whatever book they think most holy, or to invoke the aid (whether positive or negative) of such powers as they revere to help them keep their pledges.

LA replies:

At present there is no law on this. As far as I understand, people can use whatever book they like with the oath-taking. I suppose a congressman could pronounce his oath of office over a copy of Leaves of Grass if he wanted to. If he were Dennis Prager, he could hold his hand over the passage that reads, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.” Re your question of swearing or affirming, the Constitution says that a president may swear or affirm. When it comes to the oaths of other federal officials and state officials, that is decided by statute.

As for oath-taking on the Koran, this is a question we cannot resolve apart from the larger question of the place of Islam in America.

At present we allow Muslims into this society, and of course they have the same rights of free exercise of religion as any other religious group. If a Muslim elected official wants to take his oath on the Koran, there is no legal basis for stopping him. That is why it is ridiculous for Prager, who welcomes all religions and says all religions have equal rights in America, to say that the Koran is forbidden in an oath taking. His position is incoherent.

To figure out what a coherent position would be, we need to go beyond our present circumstances and think about the way things ought to be. Thinking about the way things ought to be is the beginning of politics.

In a traditionalist America it would be understood that Islam is incompatible with our system of government, our Constitution, our entire way of life. This understanding would be enforced by law. There would be no right to practice Islam in America, except under special restricted circumstances defined by law, for example for diplomats, travelers, and so on.

In a traditionalist America, Muslims would not be allowed to immigrate or be naturalized. The Koran would not be allowed any place in our public life. Also, in a traditionalist America with a restored federal Constitution, the individual states would have restored to them their right to have religious establishments if they chose, and to institute restrictions on citizenship, the franchise, and political office based on religious belief, as was true of many states up to the mid 19th century. Obviously, there would not be enough Muslims in such an America for a Muslim Congressman to be elected, but, if there were, he could not use the Koran to take his oath on, because it would be understood that the Koran has no place in the United States and in the several states.

This would not be a violation of the First Amendment, since Islam is not a religion as ordinarily understood. Islam is a tyrannical religio-political system aimed at the destruction of every non-Islamic government including our own. Therefore Islam should have no rights as a religion in this country.

In the 19th century, a series of federal statutes and court decisions banned both the Mormon practice of polygamy and the promotion of polygamy, on the basis that polygamy is antithetical to our civilization. Any religious rights that the “religiously based” practice of polygamy might have claimed were superseded by the larger fact that polygamy is incompatible with our very civilization. I think the same reasoning ought to be applied to Islam.

Now what I’ve laid out above is an ideal situation. What do we do in our actual situation? As I said, given our present, liberal institutions, I see no legal basis to stop Ellison from doing what he wants. If we want to stop him from doing what he wants, we must change our system in a fundamental manner, namely, by limiting the application of the liberal principles of freedom and equality to those groups and cultures and religions that are compatible with, or at least not dangerous to, our society. Tolerance and equality have their place, but they cannot be our ruling principles. No society can survive for long if non-discriminatory tolerance and equality are its ultimate guide. Look at Britain as it heads into the abyss. Therefore the liberal principles of tolerance and equality must be limited by the parameters of our actual culture and of our structural, non-liberal political principles, such as, for example, national sovereignty and constitutional limits on government. Things radically antithetical to our culture, our sovereignty, and our constitutional structure should not receive tolerance and equal treatment. Meaning that we would officially and formally strip Islam of its free exercise rights. At present we are obviously not living in a traditionalist society, but if we want to stop Muslims from bringing their religion into American public life, we must begin moving in that direction.

To sum up, there are two consistent and principled ways of approaching this problem.

There is the consistent liberal path, which says that all people must be admitted equally into America, have equal religious rights in America, and can take their oath on the Koran and even institute sharia law if they want.

Then there is the consistent traditionalist path, which says we have a certain Constitution, a certain form of government, a certain form of society, a certain understanding of individual rights, certain common moral beliefs, and a certain culture. We do not include and tolerate all things equally, but only those things that are compatible with our actual culture.

Dennis Prager is caught between these two positions, and does not understand the nature of the contradiction or even the fact that he is caught in it, because he takes for granted his liberal principles AND his conservative attachments and he simply assumes he can have both. In reality he cannot have both. If he wants to preserve America as a Judeo-Christian society, then he must restrict citizenship to people who are compatible with such a society. And if he wants to have a truly liberal society, then he must let everyone in and not complain when the newcomers start to make America over in their image.

- end of initial entry -

Paul Cella writes:

Well said. Your response is a model of clarity. Would that they would let you explain these facts on the radio, instead of this mass of confused men who know not who they are.

Scott in Pennsylvania writes:

Prager’s fault is that he is addressing a symptom of a disease instead of the disease itself. The symptom is swearing an oath on the Quran. But the disease, however coldly it is to put it, is the presence of Islam in America. History provides ample evidence that once Islam is permitted to spread unchecked within a culture, it kills off the host subject.

Right now, Ellison is but one Congressman out of 435. What happens when Muslims reach, say, 50, out of 435? Does Prager really expect that they will all be bringing their Bibles to their swearing-in ceremony? Nothing could be more ridiculous, nothing more near-sighted. If the Quran is anathema to American culture, which it certainly is, then the problem is more than just the oath. How did this Quran-believing man get elected in the first place? The oath-swearing controversy is just a distraction from the larger problem that needs to be addressed and that is the presence of Islam in America and how it must be stopped.

Vivek writes:

Democracy is a way of running affairs (usually political). Democracy works using a Constitution. The Constitution was a product of the society, and therefore it holds (as it must) the values of the society in high esteem. Further, democracy as a system functions as a part of the society which opts for it. In that sense, any democracy must have respect for the tradition-culture (This is a traditionalist view) where it operates.

One purpose of oath-taking is to tell the people (the electorate) about your commitment to their cause.

[LA adds: Ahh, but in a true liberal democracy, there IS no cause other than the protection and expansion of the rights of the individuals who constitute it, rights that are defined explicitly and by law, not by implicitly and by custom.]

In this sense, anyone who wants to take an oath (as a part of the democratic process) must show respect for the tradition-culture. I can think of only a few scenarios (there could be a few more, but not very many) where oath-taking on another “book” could be reasonable.

Assume, that I am a Buddhist living in America with my holy book (let’s say, The Dhammapada) and I am elected to an office.

(1) Precedence: If someone has already established oath-taking using the book “The Dhammapada,” in America. (This means that the question has been settled in the past). (2) If I keep this statement—“I will take oath on The Dhammapada and NOT The Bible” as a part of my election campaign, and I get elected.

(3) After the election, I seek permission from some suitable constitutional authority to take oath (using The Dhamma, and NOT the Bible), and I am granted permission.

(4) (This is a bit weaker case) If I declare that: (a) Personally I have the highest regard for The Dhammapada, and since I want to take the oath with feelings from the deepest of my heart I would prefer to use The Dhammapada. (b) Further, I also wish (in fact I am obligated) to communicate to the American people (Traditionally Christian) that I am taking the oath with feelings from the deepest of my heart, and that I respect them (who elected me) and their culture.

And then take an oath with BOTH The Dhamma and The Bible.

Please note that, we have ignored the contents of the preferred book. If there is a book which claims that “People practicing democracy are stupid b*ards,” should I be allowed to take the oath using such a book? An elected member cannot be (and should not be) allowed to disrespect the people, the culture, the tradition which elected him, either explicitly or implicitly.

Rather, a society which starts allowing such “disrespect” is on a self-weakening course, to say the least.

In the particular instance of Keith Ellison, I think none of the few scenarios that I mentioned apply.

LA replies:

As I suggested in my bracketed comment above, I think none of these consideration carries any weight in our present circumstances. There is no religious test for office under the United States (there used to be tests for office, early in American history, in several of the states). The Bible has no official status whatsoever. The custom of oath taking on the Bible is extra-legal and cultural. Of course these extra-legal and cultural things matter, but the whole point of liberalism is that it progressively debunks and delegitimizes all such extra-legal and cultural values until only the legal values remain.. Thus Vivek’s scenarios would apply only in a traditionalist society, not in modern American society. If we want such scenarios to apply in America, we first have to change America. Of course, the power of public opinion might militate against an elected official taking his oath on Buddhist scripture. But that is only an unprincipled exception which will be gradually pushed aside by principled liberalism.

Bill Carpenter writes:

Two responses: First, we tend to forget that our “tolerance” is originally merely a peace treaty between closely related, overlapping groups who agree on almost everything and want to live together and cooperate fully in virtually all aspects of life, including self-government: Anglicans and dissenters, in the original example; or Catholics and Protestants, to take the more extreme version with a more recent history. At all times there have been limits to tolerance where at least one party to a dispute over how to live or worship does not believe the differences between the parties are relatively minor in the scheme of being able to go forward together. Tolerance cannot be extended to circumstances in which it cannot reasonably serve as a modus vivendi for groups who otherwise agree in practically everything.

Second, the immediate reaction to Rep. Ellison’s desire to wave what to many around the world is the flag of an anti-American, anti-Christian, and anti-Jewish creed should probably be suspicion and ostracism, not tolerance. His fellow House members should consider refusing to serve with him on any committees and to sit with him in the House until they are assured of his allegiance to the common cause. Most American Moslems probably would not refuse to swear on the Bible because their allegiance to the common life of the nation outweighs the theoretical objection to the act. If that is not the case, it should be.

I was surprised to hear that our local conservative talk-show commenters think Rep. Ellison’s choice of the Koran is no big deal and that he should be able to swear on whatever book means something to him. They say it’s a matter of interpretation whether the Koran really calls on Moslems to kill and enslave infidels. I have to disagree with that point of view. The most visible, outspoken, and effective proponents of Islam think it does. Other interpretations are therefore irrelevant as a practical matter at the present time. Even if the jury were still out on what the Koran requires of its adherents, the present situation of worldwide war between Moslems and non-Moslems mandates suspicion.

If there were a terrorist sect that called itself the Army of God and sought to subdue Americans to the autocratic rule of the Byzantine emperor over all aspects of life, and if Rep. Ellison were supported by allies of the Army of God and related groups, we would rightly see his use of the Bible to take his oath of office as a highly suspect act, because his view of the mandates of the Bible would probably not be compatible with upholding the Constitution or maintaining American life along its traditional lines. His swearing on the Bible would thus make a mockery of the use of the Bible by other office holders, because it would not be an attestation of a common faith or a pledge of allegiance but a declaration of war. In that case, he would deserve suspicion in the House for his potential lack of allegiance to the Republic, regardless of which book he swore on. Indeed, many who swear on the Bible probably do deserve such suspicion.

LA replies:

First, that’s a great definition of tolerance that I never heard before.

Second, on the oath-taking, if, as Mr. Carpenter argues, the Koran is so antithetical to America that an elected official should not be permitted to swear on it, then Islam itself is so antithetical to America that Muslims should not be permitted to be here. So let’s stop reacting to the inevitable symptoms of the Islamic presence in America and start treating the disease itself.

Part of the answer is the sort of total intolerance toward the Koran that Mr. Carpenter expresses. If American at all levels of life became totally intolerant of Islam and expressed this both privately and publicly, Muslims would stop coming here and many others would start to leave.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 06, 2006 07:56 PM | Send

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