Election Day Firsts and Faith in the Public Square


On Tuesday, August 7, 2018 there seemed to be a number of election day firsts. These include the number of women running for Congress and governorships. But there were other firsts, some that reflect the changing cultural and religious landscape of the United States.While there is a significant cultural backlash underway, that is rooted in the fear that white, European, Christian dominance is being eroded. There is the fear that "others" might claim a position of dominance in our country. This isn't new. Just think back to 1960, when many Americans were feared the election of a Roman Catholic as President. Today, the majority of members of the Supreme Court are Roman Catholic. While attempts to limit immigration, legal and otherwise, and to make getting green cards and citizenship more difficult, change is afoot. 

Just this week, in our elections a Muslim American and a person of Indian descent ran for Governor of Michigan. They didn't win their party's nomination (they lost to a woman), just their presence on the ballot was important. One of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for the Congressional district I am a resident of was a Muslim woman. She didn't win, but just her presence on the ticket was important. She was joined by a Hindu American man in the same race. It does appear, however, that the first Muslim woman will join the next Congress. Rashida Tlaib, a resident of Detroit, appears to be the winner of the primary for a fairly safe Democratic seat. I can share that one of my good friends, who is a Hindu woman, is the Democratic candidate for a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives. Padma would be the first Hindu woman to serve in the Michigan legislature. (I've been working to make that come true).

Below you will find a chapter from my book Faith in the Public Square, (Energion Publications, 2012)which reflects on the results of the 2007 election, which saw the seating of two Buddhists and the first Muslim to serve in Congress. That Muslim Congressman, Keith Ellison, came under fire for his decision to use the Qu'ran for his swearing in (he used Thomas Jefferson's copy). Times have changed. He was later joined by another Muslim man, and now a Muslim woman. Times are a changing. In what follows I reflect on the changing times and the broadening of our religious horizons. Of course, rather than fear these changes, I have embraced them. 

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The Day Congress Marked Religious Firsts


When Congress convened on January 4, 2007 it witnessed several American religious firsts, including the seating of two Buddhists and a Muslim as congressional representatives. In 1972, fifty-one senators and 43% of the House hailed from three Protestant denominations, but that’s changing, especially with the most religiously diverse Congress in history. What this means is that we’re witnessing the realization of America’s promise as a land of freedom for people of every religious background.

Not everyone, unfortunately, is happy about this change. The election of a Muslim from Minnesota, Keith Ellison (D-MN), to Congress made news, which might not be unexpected considering that America is at war in two Muslim countries. Some Americans feel this event in our history bodes ill for the nation. When Ellison announced that he would use the Koran to take his oath of office, the reaction was swift and negative. Now sacred books aren’t used in the official ceremony, but only in a later private and unofficial one. Still, this reaction is an expression of xenophobic tendencies that often emerge in difficult times. It is also rooted in a growing suspicion of Muslims who are seen as somehow not truly American.

Some feel that this request to use the Koran is an attack on American civilization as we know it. Conservative talk show host Dennis Prager wrote: “If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress.” Judge Roy Moore of Alabama believes that since “the Islamic faith rejects our God and believes that the state must mandate the worship of its own god, Allah,” a Muslim can’t uphold the Constitution and still be a Muslim. Of course, Moore uses quotes from a Radical Muslim, but nothing I’ve read so far suggests that Ellison is a radical. Another conservative group called for the passage of a Constitutional Amendment mandating the use of the Bible in such ceremonies. Then there is the perplexing call by Congressman Virgil Goode (R-VA) to restrict immigration, especially of Muslims, lest Muslims take over Congress. It should be noted that Ellison isn’t an immigrant but is instead a convert.

What Prager, Moore, the AFA, and Goode are suggesting not only runs counter to the American spirit of religious freedom; it’s a direct challenge to the Constitution of the United States. While the use of the Bible in official ceremonies is a long-standing tradition and a legacy of America’s civil religion, requiring its use would be an unconstitutional religious test. Article Six of the Constitution says explicitly that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” How ironic it is that some Americans are willing to betray the Constitution to “protect” American civilization.

America is bigger than this. At the heart of our nation’s governing philosophy is a commitment to freedom for all people, a commitment that’s enshrined in the Constitution, and extends to one’s religious practices. Forcing someone who isn’t a Christian to use the sacred text of the Christian faith in an official ceremony runs counter to this commitment to religious freedom. It also makes second-class citizens of non-Christian citizens of the nation.

If we need to use a document in ceremonies such as the swearing in of a congressperson, a judge, or the President, then why not use a copy of the Constitution. After all, our elected officials aren’t being entrusted with enacting biblical statutes. As far as I know, we elect them to uphold the Constitution of the United States. As important as religion and the Bible have been to the history of the nation, the Constitution and not the Bible is the unifying document in our country. Besides, it doesn’t appear that using the Bible in such ceremonies is much of a guarantor of honesty or trustworthiness. Besides that, there’s an inconvenient saying of Jesus forbidding the taking of oaths on anything, including Heaven. Instead, he says: let our word be “'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one" (Matthew 5:33-38, NRSV). Despite the din of rancorous pronouncements, this is an important year in the life of our nation. So, as we mark a new chapter in America’s political and religious life, I want to say congratulations to Keith Ellison and also wish him the best as he represents his district and his nation in Congress.  


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