Guest Post: “Freedom under Fire”

Today’s guest post was composed by students in an undergraduate course I just finished teaching on American religious minorities. The students’ assignment was to provide historical perspective on a controversy involving one of the religious minorities we discussed, with the aim of generating greater empathy among readers (i.e., greater understanding if not necessarily agreement) for the minority group’s position. If you have constructive feedback to offer the students, please comment on this post.

By Zach Ellsworth, Sara Garret, and Kyle Bush

The United States has always claimed to be the land of the free. It is so ingrained into our country’s self-portrait that we wrote it into our National Anthem. In addition, the great forefathers of the United States saw freedom as such a defining trait of our fledgling nation that it is the foremost thought written in the preamble to the U.S Constitution. The purpose of the Constitution, it explains, is “to secure the Blessings of Liberty.” These blessings are spelled out in the Bill of Rights, which declare freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to bear arms, and the freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion has been the center of controversy as of late, most recently in the case of Tulsi Gabbard.  Early in 2013, Gabbard became the first Hindu-American to be elected to Congress. When swearing in, she used the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text used in Hinduism, as opposed to the traditional Christian Holy Bible. This turned the heads and opened the mouths of traditionally staunch conservatives, who claim that this is a violation of American tradition. But if we are a country represented by our freedoms, why should Gabbard be held to a custom that is irrelevant to her beliefs? It can be argued that Gabbard succumbing to this opposition and swearing in on the Bible would have been the actual violation, not of tradition, but of the freedom the U.S. has flourished under. By exercising her rights, Gabbard reminded America that freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.

Tulsi Gabbard’s case is not an isolated event as some would suggest.  In fact many government representatives have historically been sworn into office over something other than a bible.  When John Quincy Adams was sworn into office as President of the United States on March 4th 1825, he did not use a Bible.  Instead, President Adams used an American law book.  No sort of controversy was reported from this decision at his oath ceremony.

Keith Ellison, however, faced more criticism to his oath ceremony when he was elected a Congressman in 2006.  Ellison, a practicing Muslim, requested that he be sworn into office under the Qu’ran.  This caused much controversy from a group of radical conservatives, because of anti-Muslim tensions post-9/11.  Despite the critics, Ellison did follow through with his oath ceremony and was sworn into office under the Qu’ran;  a Qu’ran owned by no other than founding father Thomas Jefferson.

In a more recent example, John Brennan became the Director of the CIA and chose not to use the Bible either.  Rather, in his oath ceremony, Brennan chose to use the United States Constitution.  When asked why he wanted to be sworn in under the U.S. Constitution, Brennan replied he, “wanted to reaffirm his commitment to the rule of law as he took the oath of office as director of the CIA”  (AUSCS).

Despite the controversial feedback, research these “different” oath ceremonies and you will find something very interesting about American Religious legislation: You are not required by the U.S. Constitution, or any other law, to be sworn in on the Bible.  In fact, U.S. law does not require one to be sworn in under any book at all.  Using the Bible has simply been an American tradition – not a law.  Members of Congress that have sworn in using the Bible, law books, the Koran, or even the Bhagavad Gita that Gabbard used, were completely within their legal right.

Opposition to this type of religious plurality has been a many sided force. On one side of it are the conservative Christians who take up a decent majority of politicians and opinion makers. In his article “Spiritual Adultery,” World magazine writer Timothy Lamer gave this opposition a voice when responding to a Hindu prayer given by Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala before a joint meeting of Congress. Lamer called his Christian brothers who had heard the prayer to repentance, claiming that they had, “basically bowed down to Baal,” (Baal is a pagan god from the Old Testament). He continues to accuse them of spiritual adultery and recommends they be excommunicated from the Church if they fail to repent.

While no swearing in took place in this case, it is important to note because it brought to light the anger of traditional conservatives towards growing religious plurality in a government feeling the affects of post-modernism. Lamer speaks passionately; it is obvious that his convictions are strong. The doctrines and scriptures of Christianity teach that once Jesus saves you from your sins, the Holy Spirit consumes you with passion and zeal for the Glory of God. This is evident in Lamer’s words. But other Christians have had less forward reactions, noting that the Bible also teaches that God has ultimate sovereignty, and Jesus speaks to endurance during suffering.

In relevance to the swearing in of Tulsi Gabbard, Christians must again take comfort in God’s sovereignty. As a government official, your job is to serve the people, no matter their race, religion, gender, etc. With that comes the protection of the separation of church and state. When we are outraged by the fact that a religion other than Christianity is at center stage, have the two not come together, de facto? Additionally, forcing someone to swear in on a text or document of no meaning to them may weaken their vow. Some would argue that by using an object of sacrament, or another item that one holds dear, strengthens one’s oath by adding conviction.

Ellison’s case was similar to the controversy surrounding the Hindu prayer. However, it wasn’t so much that he was a Muslim that he was scrutinized for; it was the fact that he used the Koran in taking his oath of office. Being the first to do so, coupled with the complicated understanding shared by many Americans of Islam in the wake of 9/11, made Ellison a target of numerous prejudices, both political and social. This parallels the criticism surrounding Tulsi Gabbard. One of the most outspoken adversaries against his swearing in on the Koran was Dennis Pragar.  Pragar, one of America’s most well-known talk show hosts, argued that Ellison’s choice to use the Koran should not have been allowed, “because the act undermines American civilization.” He posed a mandate that America, as a whole, is Christian, and that this symbol of religious pluralism is “damaging to the fabric of American Civilization.” This consistent use of the word “civilization” seems to be an attempt to use his conservative Christian view to juxtapose the seemingly savage, foreign, unwelcome Islam.

However, Keith Ellison is neither of those things. Keith Ellison was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, as “American” a city as any in the states. He pursued an American dream, which to him meant a better America. This commitment was what led the people to vote him into office, and eventually Congress. He has four children, who attended public schools and enjoyed all of the “American” experiences that come with it. To argue that Ellison is a threat to “American” civilization is to argue that Ellison is a threat to the very thing that molded him; a country, a culture, and a civilization that he worked to protect as a governing official. Insofar as Islam being considered a “foreign” religion; Muslims have been practicing in the states since they were just colonies, nearly as long as protestant Christianity.

While congress has mostly consisted of Christians, we have found that as religious diversity in our country has grown, the amount of religions represented in Congress has increased as well. While Congress still does not completely reflect the religious demographics of our country, it is a good thing that they are becoming more religiously diverse. Congress is still majority Christian, so even though we see more members of other religious affiliations in government, Christians do not have to worry that they will not receive appropriate representation. As a matter of fact congress is still very much dominated by Christians with 54.7% being Protestant and 30.1% being Catholic. Tulsi Gabbard, in fact, is the sole practicing Hindu in Congress.

While Tulsi Gabbard is the only practicing Hindu in Congress, it is still extremely important that she is there. Whether people want acknowledge it or not, our country continues to become more diverse and all these different races or religions deserve to have representation in Congress. It is hard to find an exact number of how many Hindu-Americans there are, but there is said to be anywhere from 600,000 to 2.3 million. So if there were not at least one Hindu-American in Congress, there would be many citizens without representation.

People who opposed Tulsi Gabbard swearing into Congress on the Bhagavad Gita ought not worry. By Gabbard making the statement of swearing in on something other than the traditional bible, she reiterated that our country still stands on the basic morals that it was founded upon. Religious freedom is granted to everyone here and that is a fundamental right in our Constitution that Gabbard is exercising. So for those concerned about American civilization and what it means to have a practicing Hindu swear into congress on the Bhagavad Gita; your concerns have been heard. However, you can take confidence in the fact that Gabbard is just exercising her rights as a citizen of the United States- the same rights granted to each and every one of us. By exercising her freedom, Gabbard is showing that she is just as concerned about America’s civilization as everyone one else. This country was built on freedom and that includes freedom of religion. Gabbard is exercising that right just like any other American citizen.

The United States is a constantly changing nation, a continuously evolving culture, and could be a perpetual emblem of freedom if we, as its citizens, possess the desire for it to be so.  Our government, which is for and by the people, has to be a direct representation of this desire. As the great American melting pot, diversity plays an integral part of our liberty. When it comes to religion, our tradition is not Christianity, but freedom of such, and freedom from such.  From John Adams, to Keith Ellison; from hindu prayers, to Tulsi Gabbard; America is populated for the free and governed by the same.  Diversity is not a threat; it’s an asset.

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