After a deluge of disagreement, conservative Jewish pundit Dennis Prager eventually agreed that Muslims should not be legally barred from taking oaths on the Qur'an. Prager launched the controversy by saying U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison "should not be allowed to do so," but later said he does not support a law requiring the use of the Bible. Rep. Virgil Goode, another critic of Ellison's decision, didn't call for one either. Don Wildmon's American Family Association remains alone in calling for such legislation.
As the Ellison case quieted down, the North Carolina Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit by a Muslim woman and the ACLU challenging a 1777 state law that requires courtroom oaths on "Holy Scriptures." Lower courts have ruled that the phrase allows only for oaths on the Bible.
Meanwhile, some officials in Wisconsin are still upset about the state's new Marriage Protection Amendment and therefore also object to the state's mandatory oath, which pledges support to the state constitution. So Madison's city council allowed dissenters to make a supplemental oath resolving to work to allow same-sex marriage. The Family Research Institute of Wisconsin charged the council with defying the law and undermining democracy.
Quakers and Anabaptists, most of whom refuse to take oaths entirely, have faced similar accusations in the past. They balk at taking oaths because of their interpretation of the very book most officeholders swear on.
There are different kinds of vows and oaths in Scripture, but many passages suggest they're all dangerous. In the most troubling example, Jephthah, in exchange for a military victory, swore to sacrifice the first thing that walked out his door, and it turned out to be his daughter (Judges 11). Both he and his only child knew there was no alternative. "If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge," God had commanded, "he shall not break his word" (Num. 30:2).
The Qur'an, by contrast, assures readers that "God does not take you [to task] for what is thoughtless in your oaths" (5:89). Help the poor or fast, and you're expiated.
The scribes and Pharisees in Jesus' day adopted rules in an apparent effort to protect the faithful from rash promises: Oaths "by the temple" weren't binding, for example, but more specific oaths "by the gold of the temple" were (Matt. 23:16ff). Jesus condemned such game-playing and issued a far more expansive rule: "Do not take an oath at all. Let what you say be simply yes or no" (Matt. 5:33-37). In this, he echoed the Law of Moses: "If you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin" (Deut. 23:22).
Irenaeus, Tertullian, and other early church leaders considered Jesus' command to be a ban on all oaths, while others like Augustine concluded that Jesus was using hyperbole to condemn abuses. After all, Augustine noted, even Paul took oaths (e.g., Gal. 1:20). Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers sided with Augustine, approving of civil oaths that didn't abuse or profane the name of God.
Which leads us back to those oaths of office. A week after Ellison and his Congressional colleagues took their oaths, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez began his third presidential term by promising to nationalize the economy and expand socialism. "I swear by Christ, the greatest socialist in history," he declared.
Does his oath constitute profanity?
Does Congress's oath?
Ellison didn't actually take the oath of office on the Qur'an after all. And others didn't use the Bible. Those photos of members of Congress with their hands on the Bible are actually staged reenactments. The House of Representatives takes its oath of office in unison, without holy books at all. So do those photos bear false witness? Maybe.
We could parse Scripture to codify hard rules for oaths, but then we're right back to being confronted by Jesus.
Maybe we're supposed to be less interested in oaths than in becoming a community of truth-tellers. As Philo said, the more emphasis one puts on swearing, the more "the swearer shows that there is some suspicion of his not being trustworthy."
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A version of this column originally ran in the March 2007 print edition of Christianity Today. The column "Tidings" was formerly called "Weblog in Print." Earlier columns by Ted Olsen include:
Bottom-Up Discipline | What do you do when your pastoror your entire denominationstrays? (Jan. 16, 2007)
The Year Conservatives Saved Christmas | We bullied stores out of "Happy Holidays." Hooray? (Dec. 8, 2006)
What Really Unites Pentecostals? | It's not speaking in tongues. It may be the prosperity gospel (Dec. 5, 2006)
Does Islam Need a Luther or a Pope? | American pundits debate whether centralized religious authority restrains violence. (Oct. 20, 2006)
Asylum vs. Assistance | Offering sanctuary isn't about political protest. (Sept. 26, 2006)
We're Not Spectators | Mideast Christians writing for our website expressed their anguishand anger. (Aug. 28, 2006)
Latter-day Complaints | Mormons and evangelicals fret over movies, politics, and each other. (Jul. 6, 2006)
Peace, Peace | From the front page to the obits, one day's news about Christian peacemaking. (Apr. 18, 2006)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.