We decided Steve King and Ben Carson were wrong about Muslims holding public office in 2006

Steve King jumped into the Ben Carson-induced Constitution burning yesterday when he said that a Muslim “cannot seriously give an oath” to the Constitution.

King went on to claim that Carson’s comments would help him in the Iowa caucuses. As he said, quoted by the Washington Post:

The people on our side who pay any attention to this at all understand sharia is incompatible with the Constitution and that a sincerely devout Muslim — I might say, a devout Islamist — cannot seriously give an oath to support the Constitution, because it’s incompatible with his faith.

He’s right about two things: First, Carson’s comments will almost certainly help him in Iowa, where less than half of Republicans think that Islam should be legal, let alone compatible with elected office. Second, there are people on his side who pay a whole lot of attention to this. And they have for quite some time.

Steve King has been in Congress long enough to remember the swearing in of Keith Ellison, who in 2006 became the first practicing Muslim to be elected to Congress. When news broke that Ellison planned to be sworn in on a Quran instead of a Bible — because why would he swear in on a Bible? — conservatives lost. their. minds.

Virgil Goode, via Wikimedia Commons

Virgil Goode, via Wikimedia Commons

The far-right head explosion was led by my congressman at the time, Virgil Goode, who insisted that the Quran violated “the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America…[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.”

Others claimed that Ellison would be violating some grand tradition of every American elected official ever swearing in on a Bible — a tradition that has never existed. Multiple presidents, including John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce and Teddy Roosevelt, were sworn in as president at least once without the use of a Bible. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and former governor of Hawai’i Linda Lingle were sworn in on the Tanakh, a Jewish holy book. As the Sun-Herald reported at the time:

Neither the House nor the Senate keeps record of what holy books, if any, are used in the unofficial ceremonies. In fact, House members are sworn in together on the House floor in a ceremony without any book, holy or otherwise. But in an unofficial ceremony, individual members re-enact an oath so it can be photographed. The tradition dates to the birth of photography, so congressmen could send photos back to their hometown newspapers.

When all was said and done, everyone decided that Virgil Goode was a crazy old man and ignored him. Keith Ellison held his ceremonial swearing-in using an English translation of the Quran that was owned by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson remained perfectly still in his grave.

Goode and King, themselves members of Congress, were perfectly aware of how wrong they were about how much it mattered that a Quran made its way into the halls of Congress. They know that religious documents have nothing to do with the oath our representatives take to uphold our completely secular Constitution. As was the case then, is just parlaying his constituency’s not-so-subtle bigotry into electoral advantage — Constitution, protocol and reality be damned.

Just because it’s a presidential election doesn’t mean we have to re-litigate debates we’ve already had. Someone should tap Ben Carson and Steve King on their respective shoulders and tell them that 2006 called, and it wants its bad ideas back.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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