Keith Ellison of Minnesota made history this past November by becoming the first Muslim ever elected to the U.S. Congress. While Minnesota might seem like the state least likely to stir up controversy, Ellison’s post-election celebration was marred when CNN’s Glenn Beck confronted him on air, demanding that he prove that he wasn’t working with the terrorists.
Further controversy errupted when it was learned that Ellison intended to swear his oath of office on the Koran. The public swearing-in ceremony for congress does not involve the use of any holy books at all; members are expected to raise their hands and swear. The ceremony Ellison was referring to was a private ceremonial oath that has become tradition for many members of Congress. Nonetheless, Representative Virgil Goode (R-VA) sent out a letter saying that Ellison’s intention to swear his oath of office on the Koran is a threat to “the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America.” Goode also wrote that, “if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt . . .[my] position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.”
However, lawyer and longtime Minnesota state legislator Keith Ellison is not an immigrant. He was born in the United States, and can trace his lineage in our country back to 1743. And today he answered Representative Goode’s criticisms by using a copy of the Koran donated to the Library of Congress by Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson, of course, was the author of the Declaration of Independence, our third President, an avid collector of books–and the most famous resident of Virgil Goode’s own district in Albemarle County. But perhaps Keith Ellison’s use of Jefferson’s copy of the Koran is more symbolic than the mere needling of a political opponent.
Some point out that it was because of Thomas Jefferson and men like him that the Constitution of the United States demands that “…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Others wonder what all the controversy is about, asserting that the whole idea of taking an oath on a holy book is to ensure the sincerity of the oath-taker. They ask whether demanding Ellison to take his oath with one hand on the bible would not be like asking him to swear on a store catalog.
Ellison explains himself like this, “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.”