Thursday, November 30, 2006

Koran to replace Bible at swearing-in oath?

Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress, has announced that he will not take his oath of office on the Bible, but on the bible of Islam, the Koran (Dennis Prager, "America, Not Keith Ellison, decides what book a congressman takes his oath on,", Tuesday, November 28, 2006).

For a contrary view, see Stephen Bainbridge, "Dennis Prager goes off the Rails re Keith Ellison" (Professor Bainbridge's Journal, 11/28/06):
Prager's argument strikes me as fundamentally misguided. In the first place, Prager appears to be misinformed. He posits that:
"... for all of American history, Jews elected to public office have taken their oath on the Bible, even though they do not believe in the New Testament ...."
In fact, however, my understanding is that Jewish politicians and civil servants often take the oath of office by swearing on the Torah rather than the Christian Bible. (Anybody got any empirical evidence on way or the other?)

In the second, and more importantly, while I am a firm believer in the idea that immigrants to the United States (and their children) should be encouraged to assimilate to American culture, I don't share Prager's notion that it's necessary for politicians and government officials to "take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book" in order to "affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization."
Bainbridge's argument is essentially that freedom of religious exercise is a core value of American civilization.

The deeper question which neither Prager nor Bainbridge really addresses here is the question about the overarching framework of values that holds together a pluralistic culture allowing for religious diversity and freedom. Those who celebrate multicultural diversity often use culinary metaphors. The metaphor of a 'fruit basket' is usually preferred to that of a 'melting pot' these days, because not everyone favors assimilation. We may prefer our diverse cuisines -- Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French, Thai, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Greek, etc. -- to retain their distinct flavors, rather than being blended down into one Genuine All-American [TM] Stew. Sticking with the 'fruit basket' metaphor allows the plum and strawberry and banana and peach and melon to each remain what it is. Fair enough. The question that remains, however, is this: What is the basket that holds all this fruit together? Prager is panicked about the erosion of what he terms "American civilization," which sounds a trifle Normal Rockwellesque. On the other hand Bainbridge's apologia for religious liberty leaves unaddressed the question of what context of values provides a foundation for liberty, since liberty simpliciter can mean everything and so means nothing. Liberty -- and equality -- are two ideas that require a third, justice, to give them meaningful definition; and justice requires a discussion of natural law.

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