It made the national news when the right wing pundit Dennis Prager posted a blog entry condemning the decision by the just-elected Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim, to carry a copy of the Quran instead of the Bible during his swearing in ceremony on January 4. While I believe that the ridiculousness and bigotry of his objections are readily apparent, the question I have is simply this: what is the point of carrying a religious scripture at all during a formality like this?
One has to wonder how many members of Congress who were later disgraced by scandal or criminal convictions had carried a Bible as they swore an oath during these ceremonies. It seems to me that such oaths are clearly meaningless. A lie is a lie, and it matters not if someone swears to tell the truth while they are lying. Similarly, carrying a Bible also says nothing about the integrity of the person carrying it. Prager and others who agree with him have tried to argue that carrying the Bible during the ceremony is simply an acknowledgment of the privileged place that Christianity allegedly deserves over and above other religions within American culture. This expression of religious intolerance isn't hard to come by, unfortunately. But the question still arises as to what an oath is really supposed to accomplish--Bible or no Bible.
The U.S. Constitution grants people the right not to have to swear an oath in these situations, and in fact two US Presidents, Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover, did not swear oaths but affirmed them instead. Hoover was a Quaker, and Quakers do not believe in swearing oaths. This is based on the teaching Matthew reports that Jesus gave in his Sermon on the Mount:
"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one."This teaching of Jesus seems to be ignored by most Christians. Few Christians of any political persuasion or religious affiliation seem to have any problem swearing oaths of office. Here we see the irony of the position taken by critics of Ellison's decision to carry a copy of the Quran; in their zeal to promote the allegedly Christian character of the United States, they are insisting that individuals hold a copy of the Christian scriptures while performing an act that Jesus, in fact, specifically proscribed within those very scriptures. The mind boggles.
The meaningless of oaths is in my mind quite evident. They are no guarantee of honesty, and the implication that rests behind them is that without saying that oath, you somehow you might be more likely to lie. Is it acceptable to lie unless you happen to swear you are telling the truth? If not, then why go through the meaningless charade? If you need to say an oath in order to ensure your own honesty, then you've got a problem that a mere oath will not cure. Honesty and integrity are characteristics that must come from the heart. This was the point that Jesus was making, and I think he was correct.