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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Koran in the Capitol
distributed 1/7/07 - ©2007

The most recent listing in my "truth is stranger than fiction" catalog comes from the realm of US politics. Who could have imagined something like the asinine furor about Rep. Keith Ellison's use of a Koran while taking his Congressional oath?

Strange as it is, the extremism expressed in this controversy helps to illuminate an important question about the authority of faith stances. There are significant lessons here for all of us who invoke our faith as part of our political advocacy.

To summarize the recent news: last November, voters in Minnesota elected Mr. Ellison to Congress. Their selection was historic, because he is the first black member of the US House to come from Minnesota, and he is the first Muslim ever to be elected to Congress.

Rep. Ellison decided that it would be meaningful and appropriate, when being sworn in, to place his hand on the scriptures of his own faith tradition, rather than a Bible. His choice triggered a fearful outburst from a few politicians, columnists, and advocacy groups. An article written by Dennis Prager has been a widely circulated expression of their objections. It reads, in part:

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. ... 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. ... When all elected officials take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization.

Over the centuries, many politicians have placed their hand on a Bible when taking their oath of office, but many others have not. Some have sworn on a copy of the US Constitution, and others have not used any book at all. The words which are spoken define the promise which is made. Touching a book expresses a personal commitment in honoring the pledge. The use of a book has always been seen as a matter of choice.

Yesterday, Rep. Ellison took his oath, and he did so with his hand on a Koran which had been in the personal library of Thomas Jefferson. This Muslim Congressman's preference for a Koran, though, has stimulated a few extremists to suggest that a law be drafted mandating that the Bible be the only book which could be used when taking an oath of office. I'm sure such legislation would be ruled an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state -- a separation which Mr. Jefferson articulated passionately.

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In matters of legislation, the dividing lines between church and state can be drawn with some clarity. It is much harder, though, to draw such sharp boundaries in the interaction between faith and politics. That vaguely defined territory is the realm where our personal and organizational lobbying takes place. I am coming to see that it is important to be very careful in how matters of faith and religious authority are invoked.

Church denominations and faith-based advocacy groups often call on their members to contact politicians with statements for or against specific issues of public policy. Those action alerts frequently encourage the people who are writing or making phone calls to describe themselves as church members, and to name how their faith informs their stance on the issue at hand. Great! It is totally appropriate for constituents to tell their representatives, "this is what I believe." Politicians need to know about the opinions, values and perspectives of the folk back home.

So it is just fine if I send an email to my two Senators and say, "The Bible speaks often about God's love and care for all of the creation. The proclamation from the Psalms that the Earth is the Lord's defines my understanding of ecological stewardship. These teachings of my church have shaped my ethics, and it is my deep faith commitments which motivate me to take a strong stand on this issue." That sort of personal testimony is like putting my hand on a Bible when taking an oath.

But it is not fine, at all, if I write my Senators and say, "The Bible says that humanity must be good stewards of creation, so you should pass a bill requiring us to do that." That's like me insisting that everybody swear on a Bible. There is a huge difference between saying that religious teachings shape my belief, and saying that my religious traditions should be the basis for public policy.

As I have written my own personal statements to politicians -- and especially as I have composed letters where Eco-Justice Ministries has taken stands on legislation -- I have become increasingly careful in what I say, and how I say it. I have taken to including explicit statements which make it very clear that our government is not a theocracy which can base its policies on the authority of religious doctrine.

I might write, for example, about biblical themes of caring for creation, and how theological principles ground my passionate commitment to values of sustainability and justice. Those values, I write, come from my faith, but they are also values which are held by people of other faiths, and no faith. I stress that laws should be passed, or policies developed, based on those commonly held values. The set of social values that I affirm based on my faith perspective then can be contrasted with other values (which disregard the poor, are unsustainable, or which see only economic worth) in debating legislation.

If, on the other hand, I'm writing a letter, and the only reason I can give why the politician should follow my advice is "the Bible says so", then I know that I shouldn't be writing. If I can't articulate values and principles that are meaningful beyond my own faith, then the law would be an inappropriate expression of doctrine in the public sphere.

In our churches, we do need to quote scripture and talk theology. That is how we come to know the basis for our faith and ethics. In our preaching and teaching, though, we will do well if we also make the connection between the distinctive beliefs of our faith communities, and the more broadly held social values of our civil society.

In our religiously and culturally diverse society, we can have the best impact as people of faith when we know our own beliefs, and when can advocate for our values in ways that do not depend entirely on religious statements.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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