I like the way Dennis Prager thinks, and I usually find myself agreeing with him. This time I don’t. As you may know, because it’s caused something of a stir in cyberspace (and, I understood, in the old media), Dennis Prager has challenged Keith Ellison’s decision to take his Congressional oath using the Koran, not the Bible. Here’s some of Prager’s position:
He should not be allowed to do so — not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization.
First, it is an act of hubris that perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism — my culture trumps America’s culture. What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book; all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.
Forgive me, but America should not give a hoot what Keith Ellison’s favorite book is. 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. In your personal life, we will fight for your right to prefer any other book. We will even fight for your right to publish cartoons mocking our Bible. But, Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath.
You can read the rest here. I think Prager’s wrong: for an oath to have meaning, it has to be sworn on something that has moral resonance to the oath taker, and that promises rewards and punishments beyond those that man is capable of doling out. Otherwise, it’s just meaningless formalism.
I’ve actually thought about this a lot in connection with Courtroom oaths. In the old days, people used to place their hands on the Bible and swear “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” What made that promise not to lie believable is that the oath taker was putting his eternal soul on the line. Lying wouldn’t be breaking a vow to the court, it would be breaking a promise to God.
Nowadays when you go into court (at least here in California), you just make a promise “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” — end of story. All that breaking the promise risks is a perjury charge, which is small potatoes compared to the old problem of eternal damnation.
I’ve often found my own atheism problematic in this context. There is no external force keeping me honest. I happen to be honest because I was “raised right.” That is, my parents told me it was the appropriate behavior, and I bought into that. I’ve also concluded based on rational observation that society functions best if people can rely on each other to tell the truth. But if, in a given situation, that rationalism doesn’t seem to serve the purpose, there’s absolutely nothing to stop me from lying. As long as I don’t get caught in this world I, as an atheist, am not worried about punishment in the next.
All that this means is that, while I’m an atheist, I’d feel infinitely more comfortable in a courtroom filled with Bible-swearing believers — since I think that they’d be more likely than not to tell the truth regardless of any immediate benefits in the here and now that might result from a well-timed lie.
So to get back to Ellison. This January, Ellison is going to stand up and state the following:
I 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.
These are tremendously important words. He’s swearing fealty to American and all it stands for, and promising to help protect us against our enemies. It’s bad enough that I don’t trust him, and that I have the uncomfortable feeling that the meaning he attaches to those words is very different from that which I would wish. To the extent, though, that he does read them in more or less the same light I read them, I want him to take them very, very seriously, and to view them as absolutely binding — something he, an apparently devout Muslim, will not do if he swears on a text (the Bible) that has no relevance to his immortal soul.
UPDATE: I find accurate and very disturbing JJ’s comment that the Koran actually precludes the oath Ellison is supposed to swear to the Constitution. This means that, whether his hand’s on a Bible or the Koran, the oath is equally meaningless if he is as religious a man as he claims to be. Not only will he not believe what he’s swearing, but his core allegiance will be to the Constitution’s overthrow so that it can be replaced with Koranic law. One hopes he’s an electoral anomaly, and not the sign of things to come.