Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Muslim in Congress & the Spirit of the US Constitution (Sam Fleischacker)

In November 2006 Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, became the first Muslim elected to the US Congress. He announced his intention to take his oath of office on a Koran that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

The fact that this has happened is an important and valuable milestone in American history, a victory for political inclusiveness, and a vindication of American ideals of religious liberty. Most sensible people have recognized this.

Unfortunately, the reactions have also included a certain amount of alarm and bigotry. Some have suggested that it is dangerous to have even one Muslim in the US Congress, and others also claim that it is somehow un-American for a Congressman to take his oath of office on a Koran instead of a Bible. These people include not only talk-radio hosts and the like but also an idiotic Congressman from Virginia, Virgil Goode, properly described by a Washington Post editorial as "A Bigot in Congress":
Bigotry comes in various guises--some coded, some closeted, some colossally stupid. The bigotry displayed recently by Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., a Republican who represents a patch of south-central Virginia, falls squarely in the third category. Mr. Goode, evidently in a state of xenophobic delirium, went on a semi-public tirade against the looming peril and corrupting threat posed by Muslim immigration to the United States. "I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America," he wrote in a letter to constituents.

The inspiration for Mr. Goode's rant is Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who last month became the first Muslim elected to Congress. Mr. Ellison, who was born in Detroit and converted to Islam in college, has decided to use the Koran during a ceremonial swearing-in, as is his constitutional right. This does not sit well with Mr. Goode, who, obnoxiously referring to his congressional colleague-to-be as "the Muslim Representative from Minnesota," warned ominously that current immigration policy would lead to an outbreak of elected Muslims in this country and unfettered use of the Koran.
People like Congressman Goode are very confused about "the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America," because religious freedom is among the most crucial of those values and beliefs. Obviously, this ideal has not always been followed impeccably in practice, but it happens to be quite central to our whole Constitutional tradition (and to the historically distinctive accommodation between religion and democratic republicanism in American political culture that has always been frustrating both to theocrats and to militant rationalists, among others).

As Alan Dershowitz concludes an excellent piece worth reading in full, "Swearing on the Koran":
Of course Congressman Ellison will be allowed to take the oath of office. The question should be whether Congressman Goode will be allowed to take his oath and sit in his elected office. He has, after all, violated his oath of office, in which he promised to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States," which intentionally and emphatically prohibits any and all religious tests.
=> A valuable discussion by my friend Sam Fleischacker (below) takes this argument one step further. Not only did the framers of the US Constitution self-consciously rule out any religious tests for public office--a remarkable and unprecedented step for that era. As Fleischacker explains, several of them explicitly addressed the possibility that doing this might allow Muslims (or "Mahometans") to become public officials, and they explicitly accepted this outcome as just and proper.
Some early opponents of the Constitution attacked it for Article VI, which prohibits religious tests for national office, precisely on the ground that it made room for Muslims to become lawmakers. Defenders of the Constitution, however, argued that this was a good thing, not something to be feared.

The issue came up most directly in the North Carolina ratifying convention of 1788. One speaker asked whether the absence of religious tests might allow "Pagans, Deists, and Mahometans [to] come among us." To which James Iredell, a fervent supporter of the Constitution and later a Supreme Court justice, replied: "How is it possible to exclude any set of men" from office, "without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for?"

Elsewhere, a newspaper article complained that the Constitution could lead to "Mahometans, who ridicule the doctrine of the Trinity" becoming our lawmakers - along with "Quakers, who... make the blacks saucy," and Jews, who might order Americans to rebuild Jerusalem. (One anti-constitutional pamphleteer raised the specter of the pope becoming president.)

The Constitution's defenders, including a number of Christian ministers, responded to such attacks by stressing how important it is that religion not derive its strength from temporal authority, as well as how dangerous it is for politics to call in the aid of religion. James Madison insisted that any law favoring one religious group over others "degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority."

Wise words - words that, disturbingly, we seem still to need to hear today.
Right. Read the rest (below).

Yours for democracy,
Jeff Weintraub
=========================
Philadelphia Inquirer
January 1, 2007
Muslim in Congress? Framers of Constitution would approve
By Sam Fleischacker

It is interesting to consider what the founders of our Constitution might have said about the election of Keith Ellison to Congress, the first Muslim to hold such a position.

Ellison, a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, was elected in November to fill the vacant seat for Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District in the House of Representatives.

One might imagine that talk-show radio host Dennis Prager and outspoken Rep. Virgil Goode (R., Va.), who have been waxing hysterical about the prospect of Muslims in high office, might have the framers of our Constitution on their side. Or one might imagine that the framers never considered that possibility, never spoke one way or the other about Muslim officeholders.

The truth is more interesting. It turns out that our constitutional founders explicitly considered the possibility of Muslim officeholders - and explicitly welcomed it.

Some early opponents of the Constitution attacked it for Article VI, which prohibits religious tests for national office, precisely on the ground that it made room for Muslims to become lawmakers. Defenders of the Constitution, however, argued that this was a good thing, not something to be feared.

The issue came up most directly in the North Carolina ratifying convention of 1788. One speaker asked whether the absence of religious tests might allow "Pagans, Deists, and Mahometans [to] come among us." To which James Iredell, a fervent supporter of the Constitution and later a Supreme Court justice, replied: "How is it possible to exclude any set of men" from office, "without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for?"

Elsewhere, a newspaper article complained that the Constitution could lead to "Mahometans, who ridicule the doctrine of the Trinity" becoming our lawmakers - along with "Quakers, who... make the blacks saucy," and Jews, who might order Americans to rebuild Jerusalem. (One anti-constitutional pamphleteer raised the specter of the pope becoming president.)

The Constitution's defenders, including a number of Christian ministers, responded to such attacks by stressing how important it is that religion not derive its strength from temporal authority, as well as how dangerous it is for politics to call in the aid of religion. James Madison insisted that any law favoring one religious group over others "degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority."

Wise words - words that, disturbingly, we seem still to need to hear today. Rep. Goode spouts religious and cultural bigotry from which our founders would have recoiled. In a recent letter, he wrote: "I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America." Not only are these sentiments irrelevant - since Ellison is not an immigrant but was born here - but they also go against the openness and pluralism that are the true traditional values and beliefs of America.

Prager, an observant Jew, bizarrely claims that "Judeo-Christian values" are the best protection against another Holocaust - forgetting, apparently, that the last Holocaust happened in a Christian country, and that Christians in Serbia, Rwanda, and Russia have been responsible for a number of genocidal killings since that time.

The real protection this country offers against genocide - and it is a great one - is its staunch refusal to ground politics on religion, its long history of opening political office to all and of not using law to favor some religions over others. This has not been a simple history, and there has been a process of increasing secularization, and increasing openness to non-Christians, in the development of our politics and law. But that process protects the rights of all of us, and the ability of all of us to practice our different religions with dignity.

With that in mind, the election of a Muslim to the U.S. Congress should be welcomed as a wonderful occasion. Like Prager, I am an observant Jew, but unlike him, I am delighted, and I hope Ellison will indeed be the first of many. One of the possibilities held out by our Constitution at the time it was ratified has now been more fully realized. The shame is just that it has taken so long for us to get to that point.

Sam Fleischacker (sfleisch@uic.edu) is a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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