Human Rights

I swear…but by what book?

Koran Cyberspace is abuzz with a brouhaha initiated by Dennis Prager’s bigoted rant against Congressman-elect Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress.  Prager is outraged that Ellison plans to take his oath of office on a Koran:

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.

Prager is wrong on so many levels I hardly know where to start.  First of all, he is wrong on the Constitution.  As pointed out by Religion Clause, it would be unconstitutional to insist that everyone be sworn in on the Christian Bible:

UCLA Constitutional Law Professor Eugene Volokh responded at National Review Online, saying that Prager "mistakes the purpose of the oath, and misunderstands the Constitution". He continued, "If Congress were indeed to take the view that ‘If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book [the Bible], don’t serve in Congress,’ it would be imposing an unconstitutional religious test…. Letting Christians swear the oath of office, while allowing members of other denominations only to swear what ends up being a mockery of an oath — a religious ceremony appealing to a religious belief system that they do not share — would be [religious] discrimination."

Not only that, but his facts are wrong.  There are Presidents who did not take an oath on the Bible, and there are Jews who have taken the oath on the Torah, as reported by Minnesota Monitor:

In our country’s history, four presidents have been inaugurated without swearing an oath on the Bible.  Franklin Pierce was affirmed, and swore no oath, Rutherford Hayes initially had a private ceremony with no Bible before his public ceremony, Theodore Roosevelt had no Bible at his ceremony, and Lyndon Johnson used a missal during his first term.

Despite Prager’s insistence 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," it is clear that he is wrong.  Linda Lingle, Governor of Hawaii, took the oath of office on a Torah in 2001.  Madeleine Kunin, a Jewish Immigrant and Governor of Vermont rested her left hand on a stack of old prayer books that had belonged to her mother, grandparents, and great grandfather" as "a physical expression of the weight of Jewish history."

And no, I don’t know what book Joe Lieberman used.

The other bloggers miss the religious angle.  If I were to be elected to office, there is no way I would ever take an oath of office on a Christian Bible.  That would be a mockery of my faith, and disrespectful to the Christians.  When we take an oath with our hand on a sacred book, we are swearing by that which is most sacred to us.  Since I don’t believe in the New Testament, what kind of oath would it be for me to swear by it?  It would be utterly meaningless.  On the other hand, if I were to swear on a Hebrew Bible, on the Torah, THAT would be a real oath.

In fact, not only would I "allow" Mr. Ellison to take his oath on the Koran, I would insist on it.  If he were to take his oath on a Christian Bible, I might be afraid he wasn’t sincere, it wasn’t really an oath.  But if he were to swear by the Koran–well then I would know that it was a real oath to him.

Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

5 thoughts on “I swear…but by what book?

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  • From what I’ve heard, there is no book whatsoever used for the actual swearing-in ceremony for Congressional Representatives. Prager et al are confusing the issue by talking about Presidential oaths. Many Congresspeople choose to do a publicity shot where they’re shown swearing on a Bible or another book, but no swearing on a book is actually required, I believe.

    You are entirely correct about the prohibition on religious tests for elected office in the US. (Purists would argue that there is at least one tacit religious prohibition — you must be religious in the first place, since there haven’t been any open atheists or agnostics in US public office in recent memory.)

    By the way, I am really enjoying reading your blog. I wish my Hebrew were better, though. Ani rak medaberet k’tzat Ivrit, aval ani lo yehudit. Toda raba, v’shalom. 🙂

  • Yes, you’re quite right the entire tempest is over a ceremonial swearing in that is of no legal significance. Just goes to show the facts don’t matter when people want to get upset!

    Thanks for the kind words. at m’daberet ivrit yafah!

    Reb Barry

  • I’m surprised that no one has brought up the potential hypocrisy of atheists’ using a religious book to swear allegiance or honesty–whether in a court of law or a swearing-in ceremony.


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