Review of Frank Lambert's Religion in American Politics

Religion remains a problem in American politics. But what kind of problem? In 2008, as a new member of the House of Representative, Ellison's decision to swear the oath on Thomas Jefferson's personal copy of the Qur'an provoked a predictable uproar....

May 15, 2008

Appeared on History News Network May 15, 2008. 

book coverReligion remains a problem in American politics. But what kind of problem? In January 2008, Nancy Pelosi sworn in Keith Ellison as a new member of the House of Representative for the 110th Congress. Ellison's decision to swear the oath on Thomas Jefferson's personal copy of the Qur'an provoked a predictable uproar. (Perhaps if that particular book had been bowdlerized like Jefferson's Bible the reaction would have been more tempered). The debate about Ellison's decision represents two countervailing views of the problem: the accusation of lapsed fidelity to America's distinctive Christian heritage and the repeated attempt to impose sectarian values on the secular political sphere.

Neither side of this debate has prevailed. As late as the 1950s, Cold War imperatives provided a stage for Congress to enact America's Christian heritage into law. Or at least into the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto, thereby casting aside the motto "E pluribus Unum" chosen by Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court was engaged in piecemeal battle to remove religion from the public schools, banning school prayer and severely limiting the funds that flow to sectarian educational institutions. In the last decade, both the Pledge of Allegiance and the question of state funding for sectarian education have returned to the Supreme Court. Tilted more to the political and cultural right than at any other time in the last century, the Court has found new space for religion in the public sphere—a trend that doubtless will accelerate with the Roberts Court.

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Aziz Huq is counsel in several cases concerning detention and national security policy, including Omar v. Geren and Munaf v. Geren, challenges to US citizen's detention in Iraq. He has advised and spoken before legislators on issues related to the Separation of Powers, excessive secrecy, and illegal detention. His book with Fritz Schwarz, Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power In A Time of Terror (New Press), was published in 2007, and will be reissued in paperback in spring 2008. He is a frequent contributor to The Nation, the American Prospect, the New York Law Journal and Huffington Post. His articles have also appeared in the Washington Post, the New Republic, Democracy Journal, TomPaine, and Colorlines. In 2006 he was selected to be a Carnegie Fellows Scholar. He also teaches a seminar in Just War Theory and Terrorism at NYU School of Law.