Sending mixed signals on religious tolerance

December 12, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- The first Muslim to be elected to Congress has not been sworn in yet, but he's already taking heat.

Dennis Prager, a conservative columnist and radio talk-show host, objects to the holy book on which Rep.-elect Keith Ellison plans to take his oath of office Jan. 4.

The Minnesota Democrat plans to use a Quran instead of a Bible.

Poor, naive me. Here I thought it was an encouraging sign of this country's respect for liberty and diversity that Americans would elect a Muslim to Congress in the midst of an international war against Islamic terrorists. No country is perfect, but we've come a long way on the tolerance scale since World War II, when thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans were rounded up into camps far from their homes just for their ancestry.

But not Mr. Prager. Mr. Ellison's choice should be blocked, Mr. Prager wrote, "not because of any American hostility to the Quran, but because the act [of taking the oath on the Quran] undermines American culture."

I had no idea that American civilization was so fragile. "America, not Keith Ellison, decides what book a congressman takes his oath on," said Mr. Prager's headline on his blog.

The America I know has a Constitution. In Article VI, it says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust."

Besides, contrary to Mr. Prager's account, House members are sworn in together on the floor of the chamber. The ritual that usually involves a Bible is actually a ceremonial photo-op with the speaker of the House.

Mr. Prager insists that he was not calling for a religious test. Yet, he also wrote this: "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."

Mr. Prager is not just another ambitious crank looking to feather his nest with a little pinch of old-fashioned demagoguery. He's got connections in important places. He was appointed by President Bush in August to fill a vacancy on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

The council oversees the taxpayer-supported United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, whose mission statement encourages visitors "to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy." The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group that supported Mr. Ellison's election, asked Mr. Bush to remove Mr. Prager from the Holocaust Memorial board.

Mr. Bush declined to step in. As White House spokesman Tony Snow put it, Mr. Ellison's holy book is "an issue that the president does not need to adjudicate and, therefore, will not." That's understandable. Mr. Bush has enough to worry about.

Mr. Prager, you may notice, is the sort of commentator who uses the word "America" a lot, even when he is speaking for hardly anyone besides himself.

But even Mr. Prager's fellow conservatives have not rushed to his side. In the case of the conservative New York Sun, for example, Mr. Prager appears to have performed a minor miracle: He has made Mr. Ellison look sympathetic in the eyes of a newspaper that opposed his election. "Mr. Prager is not only wrong," a Sun editorial said, "but his comments are so outrageous and, by our lights, almost unbelievably ignorant, that one just has to shake one's head in wonder."

Fortunately, Sen. Norm Coleman emerged as a welcome voice of reason late last week. He's a Republican from Mr. Ellison's home state and a member of the Holocaust Memorial board. In that spirit, Mr. Coleman took a middle-of-the-road position: Mr. Ellison should feel free to use the Quran, Mr. Coleman said, and Mr. Prager should be allowed to stay on the board.

Sounds good to me. Both sides should back off in the spirit of all-American tolerance and respect for differences. After all, we need to set a good example for Iraq.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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