The Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, and the U.S. Congress

The Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, and the U.S. Congress

by Sheila Musaji

Keith Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress.  On Tuesday, the United States added two more firsts to our elected representatives.  Tulsi Gabbard became the first Hindu elected to Congress.  And, Mazie Hirono, who was the first Buddhist elected to Congress (in 2006), and now is also the first ever woman, the first Asian-American woman, and the first person born in Japan to be elected to the Senate.

Jawad Kaleem reports that

Hirono and Gabbard will join an increasingly diverse Congress. The first Muslim to join the House or Senate, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), was first elected in 2006 and reelected for a fourth term on Tuesday.  In 2008, Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) was the second Muslim elected to Congress. In 2008, Rep. Hark Johnson (D-Ga.), another Buddhist, also joined Congress, making history with him and Hirono the first Buddhists to be elected to Congress.  More than a century prior, other religious groups also made headway into congressional seats for the first time. Lewis Charles Levin of the American Party was the first Jew elected to Congress in 1845, and represented Pennsylvania in the House. The first Mormon was John Milton Bernhisel, who joined Congress in 1851 to represent Utah. The only Sikh congressman, California Democrat Dalip Singh Saund, was elected for three terms beginning in 1957.

Tulsi Gabbard plans to use the Bhagavad Gita in the photo op after her swearing in ceremony.

Omar Sacirbey reports that this may well bring up the same sorts of bigotry as Keith Ellison’s use of the Qur’an in 2006:

... Not everyone would welcome a Hindu into Congress. When self-proclaimed “Hindu statesman” Rajan Zed was asked to open the Senate with a prayer in 2007, the American Family Association called the prayer “gross idolatry” and urged members to protest; three protesters from the fundamentalist group Operation Save America interrupted the prayer with shouts from the gallery.

Then-Rep. Bill Sali, R-Idaho, said the prayer and Congress’ first Muslim member “are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers.” Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum told supporters this summer that equality was a uniquely Judeo-Christian concept that “doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions.” Crowley, in an interview with, said Gabbard’s faith was incompatible with the Constitution.

Gabbard and her fellow Hindus obviously disagree.  “It is stunning that some people in Congress would so arrogantly thumb their nose at the Bill of Rights,” Gabbard said in an email. “When I volunteered to put my life on the line in defense of our country, no one asked me what my religion was.”  Had America’s Founding Fathers “wanted to found a Christian nation, they would have said as much, but instead they founded it on the principle of religious freedom,” said Mihir Meghani, a co-founder of the Washington-based Hindu American Foundation.

Gabbard, whose first name refers to a tree sacred to Hindus, fully embraced Hinduism as a teenager, and follows the Vaishnava branch that believes in the Supreme Lord Vishnu, and his 10 primary incarnations. Her primary scripture is the centuries-old Bhagavad Gita, whose themes include selfless action, spirituality, war, and serving God and humanity.

“The Bhagavad Gita is often considered a guide as to how to make decisions in difficult situations, when the decision is often not clear cut,” Meghani said. “Hinduism’s innate pluralism recognizes that there are various ways to look at things, and its focus on dharma, or duty, guides those holding positions of power or authority.”

Among Gabbard’s favorite verses, she said:
—“That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul.” (2:17)
—“The soul can never be cut into pieces by any weapon, nor can he be burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.”(2.23)

Her faith, Gabbard said, helped her through Iraq, where there were daily reminders that she could be killed any time.

“First thing in the morning and the last thing at night, I meditated upon the fact that my essence was spirit, not matter, that I was not my physical body, and that I didn’t need to worry about death because I knew that I would continue to exist and I knew that I would be going to God,” she said.

Gabbard said her faith would be an asset in Congress, where she hopes to work on veterans’ affairs, environmental issues, and developing relations with India, the world’s largest democracy and a growing economic and nuclear power. ...

In the article Congressman Keith Ellison and the Qur’an, I discussed the bigoted response to Ellison’s use of a Qur’an for the photo op after the public swearing-in ceremony for new members of Congress.  The actual swearing in ceremony consists of Representatives raising their right hands and repeating the oath of office. This ceremony is led by the Speaker of the House, and no religious texts are used.  Some members of Congress later hold separate private ceremonies for photo ops.  It is very possible that Tulsi Gabbard will face the same sort of bigotry from individuals who do not understand our Constitution or even the mechanics of the swearing in ceremony.  In that article, I discussed some of the more egregious comments, e.g.

Dennis Prager’s comment that “If you are incapable of taking an oath on [the Bible], don’t serve in Congress,” adding that if Ellison brought a Quran to the ceremony, it would do “more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.”  Former Alabama Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore’s comment that:  “Our Constitution states, “Each House [of Congress] shall be the judge ... of the qualifications of its own members.” Enough evidence exists for Congress to question Ellison’s qualifications to be a member of Congress as well as his commitment to the Constitution in view of his apparent determination to embrace the Quran and an Islamic philosophy directly contrary to the principles of the Constitution. But common sense alone dictates that in the midst of a war with Islamic terrorists we should not place someone in a position of great power who shares their doctrine. In 1943, we would never have allowed a member of Congress to take their oath on “Mein Kampf,” or someone in the 1950s to swear allegiance to the “Communist Manifesto.” Congress has the authority and should act to prohibit Ellison from taking the congressional oath today!” [Note:  Roy Moore also said “Buddhism was considered a false religion by the forefathers.  It is not my definition of religion, no.  It was not their definition of religion under the First Amendment of the Constitution.”   Rep. Virgil Goode’s comment that “I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.”

And, I noted in response

As a point of fact, four U.S. Presidents were sworn in without using a Bible.  M. Osman Siddique, the first Muslim ambassador in U.S. history, was sworn in on a Koran in 1999, when he became U.S. Ambassador to the Fiji Islands.  Linda Lingle took the oath of office as Gov. of Hawaii on a Torah in 2002.  Madeleine Kunin placed her hand on Jewish prayer books when she was sworn in as the first female governor of Vermont in 1985.  Other Jewish office holders used the Tanakh or prayer books  In the Federal Congress Debbie Wasserman Schultz also used a Tanakh, as did Ed Koch (D-NY) who served in the US House from 1969 to 1977.  Likewise, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) who is now entering his seventeenth term of office, stated “he had never used a [Christian] Bible at his own swearing-in ceremonies.  Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Arthur Goldberg used the Tanakh. 

Eugene Volokh responded to Rep. Goode’s statement and said in part:

“This argument both mistakes the purpose of the oath, and misunderstands the Constitution. In fact, it calls for the violation of some of the Constitution’s multiculturalist provisions.      To begin with, the oath is a religious ritual, both in its origins and its use by the devout today. The oath invokes God as a witness to one’s promise, as a means of making the promise more weighty on the oathtaker’s conscience. ...  Yet this would literally violate the Constitution’s provision that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” For the devout, taking an oath upon a religious book is a religious act. Requiring the performance of a religious act using the holy book of a particular religion is a religious test. If Congress were indeed to take the view that “If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book [the Bible], don’t serve in Congress,” it would be imposing an unconstitutional religious test.        What’s more, the Constitution itself expressly recognizes the oath as a religious act that some may have religious compunctions about performing. The religious-test clause is actually part of a longer sentence: “The Senators and Representatives ... [and other state and federal officials] shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required ....”  The option of giving an affirmation rather than oath reflects the judgment — an early multiculturalist judgment — in favor of accommodating members of some denominations (such as Quakers) who read the Bible as generally prohibiting the swearing of oaths.   ...   So the Constitution thus already expressly authorizes people not to swear at all, but to affirm, without reference to God or to a sacred work. Atheists and agnostics are thus protected, as well as members of certain Christian groups. Why would Muslims and others not be equally protected from having to perform a religious ritual that expressly invokes a religion in which they do not believe? Under the Constitution, all of them “are incapable of taking an oath on that book,” whether because they are Quakers, atheists, agnostics, or Muslims. Yet all remain entirely free to “serve in Congress.”

Rabbi Barry Leff noted that: “The other bloggers miss the religious angle.  If I were to be elected to office, there is no way I would ever take an oath of office on a Christian Bible.  That would be a mockery of my faith, and disrespectful to the Christians.  When we take an oath with our hand on a sacred book, we are swearing by that which is most sacred to us.  Since I don’t believe in the New Testament, what kind of oath would it be for me to swear by it?  It would be utterly meaningless.  On the other hand, if I were to swear on a Hebrew Bible, on the Torah, THAT would be a real oath.      In fact, not only would I “allow” Mr. Ellison to take his oath on the Koran, I would insist on it.  If he were to take his oath on a Christian Bible, I might be afraid he wasn’t sincere, it wasn’t really an oath.  But if he were to swear by the Koran—well then I would know that it was a real oath to him.”

James Zogby has pointed out“My response to my fellow Americans, especially those who are confused or disturbed by this great event: take a deep breath and think about the richness of American history and the deep symbolism of this moment. An African American, descended of slaves, was sworn into the 110th Congress using Thomas Jefferson’s own Qur’an. That, if anything, is a great American story. It deserves to be celebrated. It is now part of our nation’s history.      In becoming the first, Ellison has made us all richer and better. His election tells extremists (both at home and abroad) that America is bigger than they can imagine it to be.”

All of these folks are not only ignorant of the Constitution, but also of the mechanics of the swearing in ceremony for members of Congress.   It is remarkable that they are unaware of the fact that the public swearing-in ceremony consists of Representatives raising their right hands and repeating the oath of office. This ceremony is led by the Speaker of the House, and no religious texts are used.  Some members of Congress later hold separate private ceremonies for photo ops.


All of these points apply equally to the use of any religious scripture by any elected representative.  And, James Zogby’s comment deserves to be repeated in relation to Rep. Gabbard’s use of the Bhagavad Gita: “My response to my fellow Americans, especially those who are confused or disturbed by this great event: take a deep breath and think about the richness of American history and the deep symbolism of this moment.  ...  that, if anything, is a great American story. It deserves to be celebrated. It is now part of our nation’s history.  ...  This election tells extremists (both at home and abroad) that America is bigger than they can imagine it to be.” 

Already, the Christian News Network has published an article Hawaii Set to Elect First Vishnu-Worshiping Hindu to United States Congress in which they get in not so subtle jabs not only at Hinduism, but also at Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith.  In that article they state their belief that The Founding Fathers, however, in historical writings, namely referred to Christianity as being the established religion of the nation. 

Earlier this year, the PEW Forum on Religion in Public Life released a report Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths and they plan to release a report later this month on the religious composition of the Congress and Senate.  It will be very interesting to see the results.

All of us, no matter what our religious beliefs are a part of WE THE PEOPLE and are equally protected by the Constitution of the United States.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  — The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Here is the oath of office that our elected representatives take:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

All elected officials are swearing to uphold the Constitution of the U.S., and whatever scripture informs their personal religious beliefs makes no difference as long as they uphold that oath.  That our elected representatives represent the wonderful diversity of our population is a good thing!  Diversity is the new “normal”. 



A Christian Nation?, Rev. Daniel Webster
A Christian Nation?, John M. Kelley
A Holy Constitution:  Is America a Christian Nation?, Dr. Khaled Abdel-Hamid
AAI Condemns Prejudiced Attacks on Ellison, Asks Congressional Leaders to Come to His Defense
A Muslim Response to Dennis Prager’s ‘Five Questions’, Hussam Ayloush
ADL statement on Prager’s attack on Rep. Ellison
ADL 2011 statement Anti-Muslim sentiment significant
American Muslims must defend the Constitution of the United States, Sheila Musaji
American Muslims, First Amendment Rights, Reciprocity, and Collective Guilt, Sheila Musaji
Answers to Five ‘Repulsive’ Questions of Dennis Prager, Dr. Maher Hathout
Backgrounder on Prager
Gary Boisclair vs Keith Ellison, Another Congressional Campaign Based on Hatred of Muslims, Sheila Musaji
Buddhist, Hindu Make History With Elections To Congress, Jawad Kaleem
CAIR calls on President Bush to rescind the appointment of radio talk show host Dennis Prager to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council 
Christian Nation Or Nation Of Christians?, Dr. Hesham Hassaballa
Ellison and the Qur’an: “a great American story”, James J. Zogby
Keith Ellison: First Muslim in Congress Makes His Mark, Ali Eteraz
Fear and Bigotry in Congress
Global Marshall Plan resolution introduced in Congress-H.Res. 1078 by Ellison, Cleaver & Moran
How Thomas Jefferson read the Quran, Kevin J. Hayes 
I swear…but by what book?, Rabbi Dr. Barry Leff 
In Letter, GOP Rep Fears Influx of Muslims, Paul Kiel
Islamophobia from Jefferson to Ellison, Abdul Malik Mujahid
Islamophobia no longer questioned - even by our elected representatives
Muslims and the Five Questions of Dennis Prager, Juan Cole
Muslims are a part of our American heritage, Sheila Musaji
Oh Say, Can You Swear on a Koran?,  Eugene Volokh 
Dennis Prager vs. the First Amendment, Sheila Musaji
Dennis Prager Has A Funny Definition Of Freedom
Prager’s anti-Islamic bigotry is not newsworthy
President Bush Asked to Rescind Appointment of Dennis Prager
Presidential appointee says Quran oath ‘undermines American civilization’
Lynn Torgerson vs Keith Ellison: A Congressional Campaign Based on Religious Hatred, Sheila Musaji
U.S. Holocaust Museum urged to drop Islam basher, CAIR
Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, Michael D. Greaney
Wikipedia has an extensive list of comments on all sides of this issue’an_oath_controversy_of_the_110th_United_States_Congress