Faith in the Public Square
February 25, 2007
A controversy concerning the use of the Koran in Congressional oath-taking ceremonies raised the question of the Bible's place in American life. Radio host Dennis Prager laid down the gauntlet in a much publicized column when he said, “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.”
If the Bible is America's Holy Book, what exactly does that mean? It's true that the Bible is regularly used in a variety of public ceremonies, from swearing in of witnesses to oath-taking by public officials. It's believed that using the Bible in such a way guarantees truthfulness, although there's little evidence that such use prevents either corruption or perjury.
When we talk about the Bible as America's Holy Book, we're not talking about its content; we're talking about its symbolic status. Indeed, that's Prager's point. Therefore, since the Bible is essentially an object of veneration, we dutifully trot it out whenever we deem it appropriate. If necessary, we'll read it selectively in support of our pet projects. Take for instance the Ten Commandments: Many venerate them, but spend little time examining their meaning.
The Bible's iconic value is connected to America's mythical “Judeo-Christian” heritage, something that's apparently now under siege by pluralists and immigrants alike. Reference is often made to the nation's golden age when that heritage is assumed to have reigned supreme. However, a close reading of America's history suggests that the story is much more complicated than that. Besides, there are dark shadows that lay across our nation's religious heritage, from slavery to segregation. (To read the rest of the column, click here)