Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Swearing on the Koran or the Bible? How About “Affirming?”

Congressman Virgil Goode Jr., a Republican from Virginia, recently wrote and then publicly defended a letter in which he warned that the election to Congress of a Muslim—Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat—was a harbinger of the decline in traditional American (read Christian) values. The letter was prompted by the news that Ellison would take his oath of office (in a private ceremony) with his hand on a Koran. Goode’s letter provided politicians with a feel-good opportunity to show how open-minded they are by contrasting themselves with a genuine religious bigot, but it might also provide an occasion for noticing a quite different sort of religious bigotry—against atheists and polytheists—that has the official sanction of the U.S. government.

The Constitution requires oaths in two places. First, it specifies the oath of office the President must take: I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Second, it provides that all other state and federal officeholders “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Note the careful secularism of both provisions. Neither refers to God, both provide non-believers the opportunity to “affirm” rather than “swear” their support for the Constitution, and the general oath provides further that there shall be no religious test for office.

Now consider the oath, prescribed by statute, that all new members of Congress, including Representative Ellison, must actually take. It states:

I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

Like the Presidential oath, this one permits the new office holder to “affirm” rather than “swear” fidelity, but by expressly including “So help me God,” without expressly including an option of omitting these words, it could be said to violate the religious test prohibition, at least absent an implied opt-out for non-believers and polytheists (who would want the help of gods, in the plural). Indeed, even with an opt-out, one might argue that the Congressional oath is unconstitutional, although the lower courts have rejected this argument. It is nonetheless a sign of the taken-for-grantedness of monotheistic religiosity of 21st Century America (by contrast with 18thAmerica), that while Goode’s anti-Muslim bigotry is rightly condemned, the anti-atheist/anti-polytheist assumptions of the U.S. Code go almost completely unnoticed. Century