Appeared on History News Network May 15, 2008.
Religion 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.
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