Not Saussure

December 2, 2006

US dragged kicking and screaming into the C19th

Filed under: Bloody Yanks, Politics, usa, Wingnuts — notsaussure @ 8:23 pm

Here’s an extraordinary story that recalls a controversy in Britain in the late C19th. Keith Ellison was recently elected to the US Congress to represent Minnesota, where he will sit as a Democrat. He’s the first Muslim to be elected to the House of Representatives.
According to USA Today,

Members of the House of Representatives traditionally raise their right hands and are sworn in together on the floor of the chamber. The ritual sometimes seen as the swearing-in is actually a ceremonial photo op with the speaker of the House that usually involves a Bible.

Being a Muslim, Mr Ellison intends to use a Koran rather than a Bible in this ‘photo-op’. Nothing odd about that, one would have thought. Well, I would thought there was nothing wrong with it, anyway. But I would have been wrong.
The Telegraph reports,

The decision by Democrat Keith Ellison to use Islam’s holy book for the ceremony instead of a Bible triggered an angry column by Dennis Prager on the authoritative website this week.
Mr Prager headlined the post, “America, Not Keith Ellison, decides what book a congressman takes his oath on.” He argued that using the Koran for the ceremony “undermines American civilization.”
Conservative bloggers have picked up the criticism and run with it

I don’t know about ‘conservative’ bloggers, but Mr Prager is certainly vexed about it; apparently, ‘the act undermines American civilization’. He writes,

Tony Banks shows how to do it

The late Tony Banks shows the
Americans how to take an Oath

Of course, Ellison’s defenders argue that Ellison is merely being honest; since he believes in the Koran and not in the Bible, he should be allowed, even encouraged, to put his hand on the book he believes in. But 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, and the many secular elected officials have not believed in the Old Testament either. Yet those secular officials did not demand to take their oaths of office on, say, the collected works of Voltaire or on a volume of New York Times editorials, writings far more significant to some liberal members of Congress than the Bible. Nor has one Mormon official demanded to put his hand on the Book of Mormon.

According to USA Today, that’s apparently mistaken; they reckon,

Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, carried a volume of Mormon scriptures that included the Bible and the Book of Mormon at his swearing-in ceremony in 1997.

But, be that as it may, one can only imagine that Mr Prager objects to the inference some people might draw from Mr Ellison’s insistence on using a holy book in which he actually believes that all these Jewish or secular American congressmen were, errm, hypocrites whose oaths meant nothing in comparison with a photo-opportunity. More seriously, given the extraordinary (to a Brit) importance religion seems to play in American right-wing politics, one can see that Mr Ellison’s actions might cause the religious right some embarrassment in future if religiously-inclined American Christian and Jewish voters start to take an interest in which book their chap swears on.
We went through all this back in the 1880s when Charles Bradlaugh was elected as MP for Northampton. Bradlaugh, a militant atheist, wanted to affirm rather than take the Oath of Allegiance but was refused permission so to do by the House. He then offered to take the Oath ‘as a matter of form’ (rather, one imagines, as Mr Prager would like Mr Ellison to do) but the House refused, presumably taking the apparently profoundly un-American view that if you’re swearing an oath you ought at least to give the impression you mean it. Wikipedia continues,

Because a Member must take the oath before being allowed to take their seat, he effectively forfeited his seat in Parliament. He attempted to take his seat regardless, was arrested and briefly imprisoned in the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament. His seat fell vacant and a by-election was declared. Bradlaugh was re-elected by Northampton four times in succession as the dispute continued. Supporting Bradlaugh were William Gladstone, George Bernard Shaw, and John Stuart Mill, as well as hundreds of thousands of people who signed a public petition. Opposing his right to sit were the Conservative Party, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other leading figures in the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church.
On at least one occasion, Bradlaugh was escorted from the House by police officers. In 1883 he took his seat and voted three times before being fined £1,500 for voting illegally. A bill allowing him to affirm was defeated in Parliament.
In 1886 Bradlaugh was finally allowed to take the oath, and did so at the risk of prosecution under the Parliamentary Oaths Act. Two years later, in 1888, he secured passage of a new Oaths Act, which enshrined into law the right of affirmation for members of both Houses, as well as extending and clarifying the law as it related to witnesses in civil and criminal trials (the Evidence Amendment Acts of 1869 and 1870 had proved unsatisfactory, though they had given relief to many who would otherwise have been disadvantaged.

Many of the voters of Northampton, one rather imagines, at least in the four subsequent by-elections, would have been motivated not so much by approval for Mr Bradlaugh’s unorthodox (for the time) religious views as by the idea that since Mr Bradlaugh had been elected as Northampton’s MP, then no one but the voters of Northampton were going to prevent his taking his seat and voting. Similarly, it’s surely only up to the voters of Minnesota whom they have to represent them in Congress.
No wonder Gwyneth Paltrow finds one of the attractions of living here the fact that

The British are much more intelligent and civilized than the Americans

While we’re too polite to mention it, it’s always rather gratifying when someone else recognises what we all knew.

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  1. On the other hand, they are much more into protecting our way of life than the Brits, who are letting it all slip away. Just check with any Right Britblogger to see that.

    Comment by jameshigham — December 3, 2006 @ 5:09 pm

  2. But getting vexed about what book someone swears on, or wanting to prevent the candiate elected by the voters of Northampton or Minnesota from taking his seat because you don’t like the book on which swears hasn’t been part of our way of life in Britain since the 1880s.

    The most immediate threat to the way of life of many Brits of which I can think is the imminent ban on smoking in public places; are the Americans sound on that?

    Comment by notsaussure — December 3, 2006 @ 5:40 pm

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