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Taking the Congressional oath
of office: Religious aspects

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Sponsored link.


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Congressional oath of office:

Article six of the U.S. Constitution, titled: "Debts, Supremacy, Oaths" states:

"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." 1

The wording of the oath is determined by Congress. The original oath was defined in the first act of Congress that was signed into law. It was called "An Act to regulate the Time and Manner of administering certain Oaths." The oath was changed by Congress in 1862 and became known as the "Civil War Iron-clad Loyalty Test Oath." It was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court because it would have prevented some persons who played a role in the Civil War from taking the oath.

The current wording of the oath, as recited by persons elected to the House of Representatives and other public officials is:

I, [name], do solemnly [swear or affirm] that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. [So help me God.]

This oath is quite regularly violated by many representatives and senators. They often introduce or vote for bills that clearly violate the U.S. Constitution.

There are two options involved in the oath:

bulletFollowers of the Society of Friends (a.k.a. Quakers) and of some other faith groups have traditionally refused to swear oaths because the practice is prohibited by passages in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) :

Matthew 5:33-37 states:

"Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil." 2

James 5:12 states:

"But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation." 2

This injunction is ignored by most Christians. The official oath makes an allowance for Quakers and others. They may substitute the word "affirm" for "swear."

bulletThe official oath concludes with the phrase: "So help me God," first recited by President Arthur in 1881. This is problematic, for two reasons:
bulletIt imposes a type of religious test for the office of representative. People with such diverse religious beliefs as Agnosticism, Atheism, non-theistic Christianity, Buddhism, Humanists, Unitarian Universalism, etc. may find it impossible to affirm the existence of a God without violating their religious ethics.

Article 6, Section 3 of the Constitution contains a declaration of disallowance which forbids religious tests for those holding office:
"... no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States" 3

Requiring a representative-elect to recite the full oath, including "so help me God" would be unconstitutional because it would be imposing a religious test. Thus, even though the reference to God is a part of the oath, representatives are not required to recite the phrase. Similarly, requiring a person to hold a Torah, holy Bible or a text of another religion could also be considered a religious test. With the degree of suspicion and hatred of non-theists among American voters, a representative would be advised to ignore his or her personal ethics and voluntarily include the phrase.

There is a widespread belief that the "So help me God" suffix has been repeated by every President of the U.S. since George Washington. This belief appears to be without merit.

bulletThe term "God" is not defined in the Constitution. It has diverse meanings among different people.
bulletIt may mean a supernatural deity who is male, female, or neither female nor male.
bulletGod is viewed by various religions as transcendent, immanent, or both transcendent and immanent.
bulletDeists teach of a God who created the universe and its natural laws, and then totally withdrew;
bulletTheists generally teach that God continues to actively participate in human history;
bulletPantheists describe God as the inner spiritual essence of everything in the universe;
bulletPanentheists are similar to Pantheists but teach that deity also exists beyond the universe as well.
bulletIslam, Judaism, Sikhism teach of an indivisible deity.
bulletMost Christians believe in a Trinity of three persons in one Godhead.
bulletSome define God as some type of unknowable higher power.

Thus, the phrase "so help me God" may be very meaningful to each representative-elect but is essentially meaningless in general.

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Swearing-in ceremonies:

Members of Congress are sworn in as a group. They raise their right hands and recite the oath in unison. Afterwards, some arrange to recite the oath individually in private. Video recordings are typically made for the voters back home.

During the second ceremony, some place their hand on a Christian Bible, some on the Torah, and some on no book at all. This second swearing in has no legal meaning. There is no requirement that a member of Congress use any holy book.

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2007-JAN: Rep. Keith Ellison and the Qur'an:

Keith Ellison (D-MN), won the mid-term elections on 2006-NOV and became the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. At least, he is the first known member of Congress to be a Muslim. Animosity towards non-Christians runs so high in the U.S. that many politicians do not reveal their actual religion; some even pass themselves off as Christians.

Ellison decided to have a private ceremony after he is sworn in on 2006-JAN-04. He held a Qur'an -- the holy book that Muslims believe God dictated to the prophet Muhammad via the archangel Gabriel.

Ellison has decided to use an ancient copy of the Qur'an that was published in 1764 in London. It is a two-volume work, bound in leather with marble boards. Mark Dimunation, chief of the Library of Congress' rare book and special collections division, said: "This is considered the text [translation] that shaped Europe's understanding of the Qur'an." It was once owned by Thomas Jefferson. After the British burned the congressional library during the war of 1812, Jefferson sold the Qur'an and more than 6,400 other books from his collection to the library. Dimunation personally walked the Qur'an across the street to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony. He said:

"As a rare book librarian, there is something special about the idea that Thomas Jefferson's books are being walked across the street to the Capitol building, to bring in yet another session of governmental structure that he helped create." 8

On 2007-JAN-03, Keith Ellison said:

"It demonstrates that from the very beginning of our country, we had people who were visionary, who were religiously tolerant, who believed that knowledge and wisdom could be gleaned from any number of sources, including the Qur'an." 8

After the ceremony he indicated that he was tired of the controversy. On the way to a vote, he said:

"It was good, we did it, it's over, and now it's time to get down to business. ... maybe we don't have to talk about it so much anymore. Not that I'm complaining, but the pressing issues the country is facing are just a little bit more on my mind right now." 10

Clida Ellison, his mother and practicing Roman Catholic, feels that the controversy has been good "because many people in America are going to learn what the diversity of America is all about." 10

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Attacks on Rep. Keith Ellison

Dennis Prager, a columnist and talk radio host from Los Angeles, CA, wrote that Ellison should not be allowed to swear on the Qur'an:

"... not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization. ... 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. ... Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress. ...

So why are we allowing Keith Ellison to do what no other member of Congress has ever done -- choose his own most revered book for his oath? The answer is obvious -- Ellison is a Muslim. And whoever decides these matters, not to mention virtually every editorial page in America, is not going to offend a Muslim. In fact, many of these people argue it will be a good thing because Muslims around the world will see what an open society America is and how much Americans honor Muslims and the Koran." 4

He later wrote:

"Keith Ellison's freedom to openly believe and practice Islam and to run for elective office as a Muslim is a direct result of a society molded by the Bible and the people who believed in it, a fact he should be willing to honor as he is sworn in." 5

In the same way, he feels that a secular person should not be allowed to give the oath on the works of Voltaire; a Hindu should swear on the Bhagavad Gita; and a Scientologist should not bring a copy of Dianetics. 6

As a guest on Prager's west-coast radio program, Ed Koch said:

"... you first announced the Keith Ellison is the first Muslim elected to Congress, and you say he should not be allowed to take the oath of office on the Koran, which you refer to as the Bible of Islam. And then you make clear by saying it's an act of hubris, it perfectly exemplifies multi-culturalist activism. My culture trumps America's culture."

"America's culture is not either the Old Testament or the New Testament or the Koran. Everybody in America, in fact as our founding fathers came here fleeing the imposition of religion upon them, wanting to celebrate their own religion. So when you say he shouldn't be able to use the Koran to take his oath of office, I thought that was ridiculous, and I said so." 6

Virgil Goode (R-VA) also commented on Keith Ellison's election. Goode warned that unless immigration is tightened, "many more Muslims" will be elected to Congress. 8 He is reported as saying:

"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. ... When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing In Day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Qur'an in any way." 9

Faithful America has initiated a petition to urge Goode to retract his statements denigrating Muslims.

Rep. Goode approached Ellison on JAN-04, introduced himself, and suggested that they have coffee.

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Prager's appointment to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council:

President Bush recently appointed Prager to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council for a five year term which ends on 2011-JAN-15. Edward Koch is a former Representative, a former mayor of New York City and a member of the Council. He says that there is no room for a "bigot" on the Council. He plans to ask the Council's advisory board to remove Prager from its membership.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) sent a letter to Fred S. Zeidman, chairperson of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council stating:

"No one who holds such bigoted, intolerant and divisive views should be in a policymaking position at a taxpayer-funded institution that seeks to educate Americans about the destructive impact hatred has had, and continues to have, on every society. As a presidential appointee, Prager's continued presence on the council would send a negative message to Muslims worldwide about America's commitment to religious tolerance." 7

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Webmaster's comment:

Prager's main concept appears to be that: "The centrality of the Bible as the repository of our values is the main issue." 5

Others probably feel that the core issue is whether the Bible is "the" repository, or "a" repository of American values.

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References used:

  1. Steve Mount, "The United States Constitution Online," at: http://www.usconstitution.net/
  2. From the King James Version of the Bible.

  3. "United States Constitution, Article VI," Legal Information Institute at: http://www.law.cornell.edu/

  4. Dennis Prager, "America, Not Keith Ellison, decides what book a congressman takes his oath on," TownHall.com, 2006-NOV-28, at: http://townhall.com/
  5. Jacqueline Trescott. "Ed Koch Calls For Ouster Of 'Bigot' On Holocaust Board," Washington Post, 2006-DEC-14, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/
  6. "Dennis talks to former NY Mayor, Ed Koch, about the Ellison oath controversy," The Dennis Prager Show, 2006-DEC-13, at: http://dennisprager.townhall.com/
  7. "U.S. holocaust museum urged to drop Islam-basher. Presidential appointee says Quran oath 'undermines American civilization'," News release, Council on American-Islamic Relations, 2006-DEC-04.
  8. Frederic Frommer, "Congressman to be sworn in using Quran," Associated Press, 2007-JAN-04, at: http://news.yahoo.com/
  9. "Interfaith Call for Reconciliation in Congress," Emailed petition, Faithful America, 2007-JAN-04.
  10. Frederic Frommer, "Ellison Uses Thomas Jefferson's Quran," Associated Press, 2007-JAN-04, at: http://www.breitbart.com/

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Copyright 2006 & 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2006-DEC-17
Latest update: 2007-AUG-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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