tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

What’s the meaning of taking an oath?

My congressman-elect, Keith Ellison, is in the news because he says that when he is sworn into office on January 4, he will place his hand on a Qur’an. Ellison is the first Muslim elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ellison’s decision is causing a lot of debate. Many people are saying elected U.S. officials should only take an oath swearing upon the Bible. My local newspaper immediately came to Ellison’s defense and called detractors “wingnuts.” It is nice to see such a sophisticated debate underway.

In fact, no book is used during the official swearing in process, but because an actual oath is sworn, this is an important discussion. If nothing else, it gives us an opportunity to think about the importance of taking an oath. What does it mean and why do people take an oath?

If I give you my word, I am staking my name and reputation on the fact that I will do what I promise. In most cases, this is good enough. If I give my neighbor my word that I will return the shovel I borrowed, my neighbor generally accepts that. If I break my word and don’t promptly return the shovel, the consequences are minimal. My neighbor has to go a little longer without a valuable tool; I reduce the chances that others will lend me anything in the future. These are minor stakes.

But in cases where the stakes are much greater, we ask for something more than a person’s word. For example, in court, when a witness is presenting testimony, we don’t just ask “are you telling the truth?” We make them swear an oath that they are telling the truth. We make them take an oath because the consequences of the things being considered are substantial. While we might be inclined to believe an individual based on their reputation, that’s not enough. So, society makes the person on the stand call God as their witness that they will tell the truth. This gives the public important assurance. We know the consequences of lying under oath -- damnation. The public can know that either the person is telling the truth, or if not, that person will face a much more serious consequence on Judgment Day. In those cases, we pitty the person who fails to respect his oath.

At the school my children attend, the teachers all take an oath of fidelity to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church on the first day of classes every year. Sure, the teachers all say they will teach the faith, but if they take such an oath they are saying that “with God as their witness” they will teach the faith. This oath gives us parents a much higher degree of comfort about what our kids will be taught in the school.

So the important thing about an oath is that it is for the people who are being served by the person promising the service. In other words, the oath isn’t so much for the witness or the teacher or the congressman, but for society, for the parents and for us constituents. An oath gives us assurance beyond the person’s word that they will try to live up to their obligations.

That’s what I find so unsettling in the Ellison debate. Everyone is acting like the oath is for him. It's not. It’s for me. It’s for us. We citizens have every right to expect that our elected representatives will back up their promise to serve with a meaningful oath. Ellison has been elected to serve us, so he should be willing to take an oath that means something to us. Like the vast majority of people in Ellison’s congressional district, I honor a Judeo-Christian God. If Ellison wants the oath to mean anything to most of his constituents, then he should swear by the God most of his constituents honor.

1 comment:

Senori said...

But if the oath has no significance to him, what does it represent? One stays true to such an oath because one believes that breaking it would result in damnation: if one did not believe in damnation, one could break the oath without foreseeing any consequences.

When Ellison takes the oath on the Quran, he makes an oath that he believes is significant. In that way, he ensures that you can trust his word, no matter what we believe the implications to be.