Despite all manner of carping by the Religious Right, newly elected U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was sworn in yesterday on a Quran – one that was once owned by no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson.
The swearing-in of Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, should have been a routine matter. But right-wing pundits and Religious Right groups chose to make a huge fuss over it. Last month, radio talk-show host Dennis Prager wrote a column insisting that Ellison should take the oath of office on the Bible. The piece was reprinted on many far-right Web sites and led U.S. Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (R-Va.) to issue an e-mail to constituents criticizing Ellison.
Ellison's defenders pointed out that nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires members of Congress to take the oath of office on a holy book of any sort and noted that Article VI specifically forbids religious tests for public office. In the official swearing-in for all members of Congress, no religious texts of any sort are used.
In the ceremonial photo ops undertaken later, representatives may use any religious text they choose – or none at all. During the debate over Ellison's plan, it came to light that previous members have taken the oath on Jewish scriptures and other religious texts.
Ellison neatly turned the tables on his critics by arranging to swear on a Quran once owned by Jefferson. The version is an English translation published in the 1750s and is now held by the Library of Congress.
"He wanted to use a Quran that was special," Mark Dimunation, chief of the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress, told The Washington Post. Dimunation grew up in the part of Minnesota Ellison represents and arranged for the loan of the book.
"The very foundation of our nation, the authors of our Constitution impressed, is religious freedom, and the use of Jefferson's Quran shows that the founders not only knew of the Quran but also used it," Ellison said during his swearing-in ceremony.
Ellison also took time to find Goode on the floor of the House and introduce himself. A video of the two speaking was shown on C-SPAN, but no audio was available. We can only hope that Ellison will help Goode understand the importance of religious liberty.
What would Jefferson think about all of this? We can't help but believe that he would be pleased to see this example of religious diversity in America. When his pioneering "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom" was debated in Virginia, efforts were made to introduce Christian language into the measure. These failed, and Jefferson rejoiced.
Some years later, Jefferson wrote, "The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination."
Ironically, Goode represents the area of Virginia where Jefferson lived. He could use a history lesson from the old master himself.