American values denied while defending them


Last week, Keith Ellison took his ceremonial oath of office as a Democratic representative from Minnesota using Thomas Jefferson’s Quran. From this, we learn the following surprising fact: Thomas Jefferson owned a Quran.

Which probably shouldn’t surprise us at all. Jefferson was renowned for his restless intellect and wide-ranging interests. Still, one hopes the tacit reminder that this Founding Father and author of American values did not fear the Quran will silence those who have condemned Ellison’s decision to use that book for his swearing-in. One hopes, but one does not expect.

After all, the objections raised by the congressman’s critics are not exactly steeped in logic.

Take conservative columnist Dennis Prager, who wrote that Ellison’s decision “undermines American civilization.” Throughout history, he said, people of other faiths have taken their oaths using Christian Bibles. If you can’t do that, he said, you shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress.

Prager was echoed by a blowhard chorus. Virgil Goode, a Republican representative from Virginia, warned constituents that unless we get tough on immigration, we’ll see many more Muslim congressmen demanding to use Qurans. The American Family Association called for a law requiring the use of Bibles at swearing-in ceremonies.

For sheer illogic, though, Roy Moore, he of the Ten Commandments rock at the Alabama courthouse, topped them all. He cited the constitutional principle of freedom of religion “without interference by government” in demanding Congress prevent Ellison from taking the oath on a Quran.

Lord, where to begin?

In the first place, Moore’s argument refutes itself so effectively he must have been drinking when he wrote it.

In the second place, what does immigration have to do with it? Ellison was born in Detroit.

In the third place, I doubt his election presages a flood of Muslims in Congress, but if that happened, it would be because a majority of voters wanted it. Isn’t that the very definition of democracy?

In the fourth place, contrary to what Prager thinks, this isn’t the first time a politician has declined to take his oath on a Bible. Law professor Jonathan Turley reminds us that presidents John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover opted not to use Bibles. Jewish lawmakers have used Jewish holy books. President Franklin Pierce declined an oath altogether.

In the fifth place, it’s stupid to require a man to take an oath on a book that has no meaning for him.

In the sixth place, what does it tell you that we’re even having this conversation?

It tells me – reminds me – that there has always been a strain of intolerance in the American character, a reactionary streak that denies American values under the guise of defending them. That strain rises periodically, enflamed by demagogues and opportunists such as Charles Coughlin in the ’30s and Joe McCarthy in the ’50s, but it feels stronger and less abashed now than it has in years.

It is paradoxical that the same nation that speaks seriously of electing Condoleezza Rice or Barack Obama to the presidency can also speak seriously of denying Keith Ellison his office because he is a Muslim. That’s just the kind of country we are, I’m afraid. Not always sufficiently brave. So Muslims – doesn’t matter whether we’re talking Middle East crazies or a Midwest politician – become the latest brand name of our fears. Some people claim to defend American values they’re too faint-hearted to even understand.

And yet for all that, last week, a Muslim put his hand on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran and swore to serve all the people of his district. Then he shook Virgil Goode’s hand and invited him to have coffee.

Thank goodness, we’re that sort of country, too.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His e-mail address is: [email protected]