It was 2006 when Keith Ellison (MN – 05) made history as the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. The same year, Mazie Hirono (HI – 02) and Hank Johnson (GA – 04) became the first Buddhists in American history to serve as U.S. Senators. But both Hirono’s and Johnson’s achievement was overshadowed by the fact that Ellison wanted to use Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Qur’an for his oath ceremony.
Despite the fact that the United States Constitution provides “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” (Article VI, section 3), there was much debate about whether Ellison was in fact worthy of the position he had earned. “He should not be allowed to do so — not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization,” protested Dennis Prager. “Forgive me, but America should not give a hoot what Keith Ellison’s favorite book is… 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… But, Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath.”
Everyone remembers Ellison’s oath controversy, but not much has been said about Debbie Wasserman Schultz who could not find a Hebrew Bible for her swearing in and refused the Christian Bible in 2005, a year before Ellison was elected to office. However, Ellison was first sworn into office in 2006. Since, Americans have inducted a second Muslim into Congress in 2008 (Andre Carson (IN – 07). He used the US Constitution for his oath ceremony, therefore, avoided much controversy.
But that was then and this is now, six years since the Ellison controversy; a black man has been reelected to his second term as President, and mindsets have seemingly changed and America has progressed out of bigoted apprehension. The first Asian-American Buddhist woman to Senate (Mazie Harino) and first ever practicing Hindu to the House of Representatives (Tulsi Gabbard) have both been elected this month from Hawaii, and the state “has been declared a Fox News Disaster Zone”.
Gabbard has said that she will take her oath over a Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text for followers of Hinduism. Inspired by the story of a young girl who was ashamed of her religion, she said she was happy her election would give hope to hundreds and thousands of young Hindus in America. Kawika Crowley, running against Gabbard, in an interview with CNN said that her faith “doesn’t align with the constitutional foundation of the U.S. government”.
In comparison to the hue and cry we witnessed back in 2006, not much is being said about Gabbard’s oath ceremony. The Gita says “[w]hen a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union.” (6:32). I have only just begun reading the Gita, but its teachings often remind me that we are more alike that we wish to see.