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.Which version, Mr. Prager? RSV? NRSV? Oxford Annotated? New American Standard? KJV? Living Bible?
Prager defends his view, saying,
Of course, Ellison's defenders argue that Ellison is merely being honest; since he believes in the Koran and not in the Bible, he should be allowed, even encouraged, to put his hand on the book he believes in. But for all of American history, Jews elected to public office have taken their oath on the Bible, even though they do not believe in the New Testament, and the many secular elected officials have not believed in the Old Testament either. Yet those secular officials did not demand to take their oaths of office on, say, the collected works of Voltaire or on a volume of New York Times editorials, writings far more significant to some liberal members of Congress than the Bible. Nor has one Mormon official demanded to put his hand on the Book of Mormon.The question which begs asking is, how many of these others have asked for alternatives in the first place? As a point of fact (which Mom points out just now), during America's Colonial period and the first years of the Federal period, Quakers taking office didn't swear upon any book -- they chose to
The point behind taking an oath on a holy book is that one is promising, "as the god I worship shall be my witness," the oath-taker will follow the words in the oath with honor. In other words, he's calling upon his deity to watch him, and to punish him if he does wrong by his promise.
Quite frankly, It'd be silly to have me swear on a bible, most days. I could easily raise my hand and say, "Upon all that I hold sacred and dear, I promise...", but a book of inspiring poetry doesn't put the fear of getting caught in bad behavior in any more menacing a light, to me. On the other hand, if I stood in front of my dad and said, "To you, Pop, I promise..." you can be assured my hindquarters would stay exactly in line.
It all depends upon where your priorities lie.
More importantly, both Prager and Ellison have problems. Prager is trying to impose a religious test upon the office. "Swear by our book or don't serve" is as bad as "leave your church or have no say in your own governance." Ellison, on the other hand, is tied to some rather dangerous radical, anti-American groups, such as CAIR, Nation of Islam, and the Democratic Party Leadership.
Two wrongs don't make anything except a Congressional precedent.
Update: Dammit, I should have known Eugene Volokh would be saying this better than I.