Our Monday, Dec. 9 show explored University of Texas at Austin professor Denise Spellberg’s new book, “Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam And The Founders.” It’s a sweeping work of history, digging down to the roots of the United States’ founding history and the role of faith in our early development as a nation. We touched on a lot of issues in our conversation with Spellberg, but we also we lucky enough to hear from a current member of Congress who used Jefferson’s Qur’an when he was sworn into office.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Minnesota’s fifth district, was the first Muslim-American elected to the U.S. Congress. He talked to guest host Jane Clayson about his own interpretation of Jefferson’s calls to peaceful religious pluralism and the use of the founding father’s personal copy of the Islamic holy book during his 2007 swearing-in.
“Well, you know it’s an interesting question, because when I was at the very end of the campaign in the general election in 2006, I come from a pretty Democratic district, I had won the primary, and it looked like we had a pretty good shot at winning. And I was on a late night cable show that was in Somali, and the interviewer asked me, “If you win the election, will you swear in on the Qur’an?’ and I said, ‘You know, we haven’t even won yet. I’m not thinking about swearing in, I’m thinking about trying to get enough votes to win the election.’ And then he pushed back and he said ‘Well, if you win, you know, will you swear in on the Qur’an?’ And I said ‘You know I don’t know I haven’t thought that far.’ He said, “Can you imagine winning?’ And I said ‘Yes.’ ’What are you swearing in on when you do?’
And I said, ‘Yeah, sure I’ll swear in on the Qur’an.’
So I didn’t think much of it. Then my head went immediately back into tring to win the general. And then we did win, and the next thing you know there was a torrent of attention on us being the first Muslim elected, only a few years after 9/11, we got more than our fair share of attention. And then one day, sifting through all the mail we were getting, we got a letter that was hand written, and the writer, whose name I have not disclosed but whose name I do know, said, ‘You should swear in on Jefferson’s Qur’an.’ We all looked at each other and said, ‘This is a brilliant idea!‘ So then, we called up the Library of Congress and we already had the reference number because it was in the letter. And they said ‘Yeah, we’d be happy to do it’ but we kept it under warps until the faithful day. And then there was all kinds of attention — Dennis Prager was saying we were threatening Western Civilization and worse than Osama bin Laden, there was a whole lot of hyperbole. But it ended up being a good thing.”
Ellison also said that he thinks Jefferson would have been pleased that his Qur’an was used to swear in the first Muslim American member of Congress.
“I think he’d of been delighted by it. Everything that I’ve read about Thomas Jefferson and religious liberty indicates that he believed that religion shouldn’t divide Americans. And it’s not only in the First Amendment where it says, ‘Congress shall make no law establishing religion or abridging the free exercise thereof,’ later on it says there shall be no religious test to hold office. And of course, before Jefferson actually pulled together a piece of legislation when he was a Virginia legislator detailing religious liberty. So this is something that I think is a key part of who Thomas Jefferson was, to make sure that this new American nation would not be divided by religion. Of course, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs with religion like any nation has, but in the area of religious liberty we have good foundation. And it’s because of Jefferson and also Washington and also Franklin all made very important statements about religious liberty.”
Ellsion acknowledged the less-than-open attitudes of some of his colleagues in the Congress.
With all due respect to my friend Louie Ghomert, he’s just 100 percent wrong. He’s incorrect there. That kind of statement there is not, you know, an isolated one. My colleague Michele Bachman, whose district is right next to mine, started sending a whole bunch of letters suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood was infiltrating the American government and that Huma Abedin, the former aide of Hillary Clinton, was among those, and she added in a few others. There was a time when Tom Tancredo said if there was another terrorist attrack that the United States should bomb Mecca. And so the bottom line is there’s been inflammatory comments made here and there. but I can assure you the overwhelming number of members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, don’t share those views and are actually more interested in building common ground. I can tell you that it’s not nearly as high profile, but people on both sides of the aisle routinely talk to me about how do Muslims see America? How can we integrate? How we make sure that’s there’s one America? You know, we can fall out over taxes and spending but I think there’s a general consensus that religion should not divide us and that’s’ despite some of the more inflammatory comments that you may have heard.”
What do you make of Thomas Jefferson’s use of the Qur’an? Does America continue to provide for religious liberty of all kinds for all people? Let us know in the comments below, or leave us your thoughts on Facebook, Tumblr and @OnPointRadio.