The Civil Religion of Keith Ellison
By Art Remillard
In this week’s Newsweek, Lisa Miller’s feature article examines the role of Muslims in the U.S., past and present. In one segment, Miller cites Minnesota Democratic congressman, Keith Ellison, a Muslim convert. “For all our criticisms,” Ellison remarked, “the idea of America is an amazing thing—a society organized around a set of principles instead of around racial or cultural identity.” Thus stirs the ghost of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who coined the term “civil religion.” The philosopher explained how a diverse nation could maintain stability by adhering to a minimum set of secular “positive dogmas.” In the 1960s, Robert Bellah revived the phrase. The “central tradition” of American civil religion, according to the sociologist, has been “the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it.”
Ellison seems to suggest that American Muslims can be both committed citizens and committed faith practitioners, provided that they adhere to the nations most cherished “ethical principles.” Not everyone agrees. Recall that Ellison placed his hand on the Koran when taking his oath of office. That this particularly copy had belonged to Thomas Jefferson was of little concern to critics like radio talk show host Dennis Prager.
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. In your personal life, we will fight for your right to prefer any other book. We will even fight for your right to publish cartoons mocking our Bible. But, Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath.
Then there was Virginia Representative Virgil H. Goode, who warned his constituents:
The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.
It’s difficult to understand why Goode mentioned immigration, since Ellison’s family has lived in America since 1742. Nevertheless, the Virginian appeared to be making a statement that Islam simply isn’t American, and that “American citizens” should guard against Koran-using politicians. Instead of launching a vitriolic counterattack, Ellison remained coolheaded. Soon after his swearing in, Ellison located Goode on the congress floor. The two shook hands and reportedly went out for a cup of coffee. Perhaps Ellison has been building bridges between himself and the likes of Goode. In doing so, he may be carving out space for Muslims in America’s civil religious landscape—an admirable venture, indeed. But I still wonder whether some will ever accept Ellison’s definition of Muslim-American citizenship.