January 4th, 2007 14:24 EST
Constitutionally, religion is not a qualification for office in the U.S.
Washington -- Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison’s declaration that he would swear his oath of office on the Quran, the Muslim holy book, led to new interest in the protocol for swearing in members of Congress.
Ellison is the first Muslim to be elected to the U.S. Congress, and it is the first time that the use of the Quran in oath-taking has gained national attention.
Although historically oaths often have been taken with one hand on the Bible, the Constitution of the United States prohibits linking an individual’s ability to serve with religion: “The senators and representatives … shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
America’s founders acutely were aware of the importance of religious freedom. The first colonists, the Pilgrims, members of a Christian sect, migrated to North America to escape religious persecution in England, many sacrificing their lives. Waves of others seeking religious freedom followed, people from many different countries and creeds. Making religion a requirement of public service was unthinkable and illegal from the first days of the republic.
The first bill passed by Congress in 1789 was the Oath Act, which defined a simple oath of office: “I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States.” The oath was expanded after the Civil War to include a loyalty clause. Today, members of Congress, as a group, raise their right hands to affirm the oath of office while the speaker of the House administers it. No book of scripture is necessary. Those who wish may have a separate oath-taking ceremony on their book of choice, and some commemorate the moment in a photo.
Because America has been predominantly Christian, its became customary, but not mandatory, for U.S. presidents and other public officers to carry or place their hand on the Bible while taking the oath of office. Fiercely secular, John Quincy Adams took his oath on a book of laws containing the U.S. Constitution. Theodore Roosevelt used no book at all. Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover, a Quaker, did not swear but affirmed the oath of office. Jewish office-holders have brought Hebrew texts, while others acknowledge the Bible’s Old Testament as part of Jewish scripture and settle for that. President John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, placed his hand on the Catholic Douay Version of the Bible.
The introduction of the Quran into congressional oath-taking is evidence of the growing religious diversity of the United States. The Quran used by Ellison during his January 4 ceremonial swearing-in is unique. It once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and third U.S. president. The Library of Congress, which obtained the book from Jefferson in 1815, loaned it to Ellison for the occasion. It is an English translation from the Arabic first published in London in 1734. (See related article.)
Jefferson, who gave much thought to religion, in 1802 wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
Muslims first arrived in the United States in slave ships from Africa. One of these, Abdur Rahman Ibrahima ibn Sori, was brought from Guinea to Mississippi in the early 19th century. He won his freedom through the intercession of Mississippi Senator Thomas Reed and the sultan of Morocco, who successfully petitioned Secretary of State Henry Clay and President John Quincy Adams to free Sori. (See related article.)
Today, Muslim Americans number several million. Ellison’s election and his inclusion of the Quran in his swearing-in ceremony highlight the legacy of religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution and the contributions to American society made by people of diverse faiths.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By Lea Terhune
Washington File Staff Writer