Shaking the Biblical Foundations
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Wed Dec 07, 2005 at 09:32:00 AM EST

A recent controversy over which "Holy Scriptures" on which Muslims must place their hands when swearing to tell the truth threatens to shake the biblical foundations of the state of North Carolina.  When finally resolved, it might also set a precedent that sends aftershocks across the nation.
              A couple of years ago Syidah Mateen asked a judge if she could use the Quran instead of a Bible as the foundation for her oath to testify truthfully.  The judge wasn't sure whether that was legal, so he had her simply affirm to tell the truth and asked for a higher opinion on the legality of using the Quran.  Guilford County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge W. Douglas Albright, a strict constructionist jurist, ruled that "An oath on the Quran is not a lawful oath under our law" and added that "Everybody understands what the holy scriptures are.  If they don't, we're in a mess."

              The ruling that "Holy Scriptures" could only refer to the Bible quickly generated criticism that the court was endorsing a particular religion and thereby violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  North Carolina's Administrative Office of the Courts was asked to determine the validity of Albright's ruling.  That office, however, has been dragging its feet.  Last month, State Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, Jr. said he had no idea when the agency would decide how to address the issue.  In August, the ACLU filed suit to get a decision.

              There were reasons for the state's procrastination.  One is simply the press of ordinary business.  Another reason is that those who insist that the U.S. is a "Christian Nation" will not take any ruling permitting the use of scriptures other than the Bible lightly.  As Michele Combs, communications director for the Christian Coalition, said, "Some traditions that we've had for 200 years need to stay."  

              The Christian Coalition's opposition to the plurality of scriptures in courtrooms fits hand in glove with the goals of the political revolution that it has been helping to achieve through patient and methodical grassroots politicking.  What is gradually being overthrown is the First Amendment's guarantee that the government will treat people of all faiths and of no particular faith with equal dignity and respect.  

              After a quarter-century effort, the Religious Right has secured a majority of the legislators and chief executives of our state and federal governments.  Their presidents and governors and legislators are busy stacking the country's judiciary with "strict constructionist" jurists like U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts and like nominee Samuel Alito who may eventually confirm Albright's ruling-no matter what North Carolina's courts eventually decide.

              Undoubtedly, it is true that virtually all of the original inhabitants of North Carolina understood "Holy Scriptures" to refer to the Christian Bible.  Equally indisputable is the fact that many of the current citizens of that state no longer accept the Christian Bible as "Holy Scriptures."  If constitutions are understood to be "living documents," then the purpose of the oath could serve as a guide to interpretation.  Since the purpose of the oath is to help secure truthful testimony, "Holy Scriptures" could refer to the most sacred text of the person making the oath.

              Strict constructionist jurists, however, disdain any thought that constitutions could be living documents.  In their opinion, the original meaning of the words "Holy Scriptures" will prevail until Muslims and others successfully convince their Christian neighbors to change the state constitution.  

              In effect, by simply affirming that "some traditions that we've had for 200 years need to stay," the Religious Right is assuring that the forever contentious debate about liberty of conscience and freedom of religion moves from the principled and reasoned discourse of the courtroom to the passionate and inflamed rhetoric of the public square.  

              Unlike the strict constructionists, the founders of our republic were fully aware of the volatile nature of the differences that arise when religious beliefs and practices are imposed by force of law.  That is why they forbade Congress to pass any laws establishing a religion or prohibiting its free exercise.

NOTE: This essay is a slightly modified version of an essay that was first published in the September 2005 issue of Mercer University's Baptist Studies Bulletin.

It might be worth noting that John Locke would tolerate everyone but atheists.

Our constitution and the First Amendment grant equal rights to atheists.

Most people, both secularist and Christian Nationalist, over look this.

Laws that require swearing oaths on the Bible are inconsistent with the founding principles of our country -- though not with the founding of that particular colony.

by Mainstream Baptist on Wed Dec 07, 2005 at 01:49:17 PM EST

It's amazing how people can work themselves up to defend the Bible on a topic, when they haven't even read what it says on the matter.

For example, Jesus pointed out that an honest follower of God need not "swear by" any person, place, or object. A liar with his hand on a Bible is still a liar. An honest woman who sees the Quran as holy is still an honest woman, regardless of what books may be in the room.

So, what did Jesus actually say about taking oaths? He said that if you make a holy vow, you should keep it, but not to bother "swearing by" anyone or anything. Just be honest; let your "Yes" mean "Yes" and your "No" mean "No." (Remember, Jesus's brand of plain speaking was nearly a couple thousand years before the age of White House press secretaries.)

"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'..." Gospel According to Matthew, 5: 33-37

It's magical thinking to believe that placing one's hand on any text will make anyone tell the truth. But any son or daughter of Abraham -- whether Muslim, Christian, or Jew -- should feel obliged to tell the truth in a court of law, wherever their hands may be. Jesus knew in the First Century that integrity comes from within. Why is that so hard for us to understand in the 21st Century?

People who want to mix up the teachings of Jesus with the law of the land would do well to stop trying to place somebody else's hand on the Bible, and start placing their own hands on their own Bibles, and reading Jesus's words in Matthew Chapter 5.

And hey now, Christian kids, don't make me have to come back here again! 'Cause I'll do it! I'll turn this Bible around and read it right at you! Ya hear?

by jhutson on Wed Dec 07, 2005 at 02:22:47 PM EST

This will preach!

Thanks for adding some material for sermons.

It unfortunate that we can't get good preaching like this on the airwaves.  Fundamentalists seem to have a lock on them.

by Mainstream Baptist on Wed Dec 07, 2005 at 03:31:54 PM EST

     Interesting article, indeed, but let's take it one step further.  If our founding fathers were wise enough not to impose religion, or the lack thereof, in order to ensure our rights,  then just how would one go about swearing an oath to tell the truth to an agnostic or atheist?  It would not only force a person of that persuasion to commit personal heresy, but demand by law that he lie at the onset of testimony by making him take a theoratical oath to something he never professed to believe in (in the 1st place).  This "swearing-in" on the bible, or any other religious text, is fundamentally flawed from the start.

by laddie on Wed Dec 07, 2005 at 11:08:24 AM EST

I think it is legal merely to "affirm" as the first judge directed the Islamic woman to do. There are several Christian denominations that will not put their hands on anything and swear by it (maybe those are the ones who actually read the book!). That was true even 200 years ago. Therefore some other method of compelling truth had to be instituted.

This is just another example of funamentalist bullying.

by RedSonja2000 on Wed Dec 07, 2005 at 04:23:28 PM EST

This is just another example of fundamentalist bullying.

by Mainstream Baptist on Wed Dec 07, 2005 at 04:53:53 PM EST

To many of the Founding Fathers there was a believe that the Republican government would only work in the long run if the majority of the citizens believed in a "higher being" who issued rewards and punishments for there deeds on earth.

The presumption was that that someone who agreed to "tell the truth, the whole truth, so help your God." believed that and would have a greater inclination to tell the truth in court. There is even a few documented instances where a person who would not take the oath was not allowed to testify.

by Vaclav on Wed Dec 07, 2005 at 06:55:46 PM EST

some of them contradictory, in floating ideas about religion, the people, and so on.

But when the framers of the constitution got together to produce the framework for the new nation, the document they produced left out all mention of god and Christianity. The only mention of religion (the first amendment came later) was to proscribe religious tests for public office (Article 6) This meant that as a matter of foundational constitutional doctrine, religious orientation was irrelevant to one's status as a citizen.  This set in motion the disestablishment of the state churches.  There is no question that principle of religious equality of the citizens was a foundational principle -- and not something else. They did this not because they were anti-religious, but because they believed in religious freedom, and by that, they meant the right to believe according to your own conscience without any interference from religious institutions or state. The framers considered religious coersion of any sort an abomination to thier ideas of human rights, and indeed, most of their ideas of God and Christianity.

Article 6 took special aim at religious oaths taken when swearing in public officials. The only oath public officials are required to take is to uphold the constitution.

It only makes sense that if religion is irrelevant to citizenship, and religious oaths for public officials are banned -- courts should not require citizens --or anyone to take a religious oath. Shall school teachers require children to swear to God that they were not the ones causing the trouble? How about public employees, shall they be required to swear on a bible that they will do a good job as a condition of employment?

The framers were also aware, I might add, that oaths were meaningless unless you believed in the particular religious tradition at issue.  

I am quite certain that the framers of the constitution would be appalled at this situation -- more than 200 years after the ratification of the Constitution by the states.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Dec 07, 2005 at 09:36:22 PM EST

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