The big religion story at the start of the 110th U.S. Congress last week focused on Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who was ironically and ceremonially sworn in on a Koran once owned by President Thomas Jefferson. Frederic Frommer of the Associated Press was thorough enough in his report published Tuesday to note that Ellison's mother is Catholic. But she supports her son, of course, and thinks the controversy is a good thing. Detroit Free Press staff writer Niraj Warikoo summarized the event, focusing on Ellison's belief that the Koran influenced the Founding Fathers:
The Quran is "definitely an important historical document in our national history and demonstrates that Jefferson was a broad visionary thinker who not only possessed a Quran, but read it," Ellison said in an interview with the Free Press. "It would have been something that contributed to his own thinking."
Ellison was criticized by some commentators for using the Quran during his oath off office. Ellison said he decided to use Jefferson's Quran after receiving a letter from someone who told him about the copy, which is with the Library of Congress. U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode, a Virginia Republican, slammed Ellison for using a Quran.
But Ellison said Friday that Jefferson's Quran "shows that from the earliest times of this republic, the Koran was in the consciousness of people who brought about democracy."
It is one of those stories that begs for some additional research. Is there any real historical evidence that the Koran was even read by Jefferson? The man was known for buying books by the boatload.
And how's this for a follow-up question to Ellison: In what ways did the Koran affect Jefferson's thinking and his writing of the Declaration of Independence? Reporters are not stenographers. They ask questions. They do research. They check facts.
Around the same time Ellison was placing his hand on the Koran next to newly anointed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a couple of other members of Congress were letting their religious views be heard. As reported at Slate by John Dickerson, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., nominated Pelosi in the name of Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman and "in the name of Jesus Christ." Yes, he nominated her in that order while others "nominated her in the name of the Ohio Buckeyes, the children of Katrina and Darfur, the name of history, womankind, 'women who can do anything,' the future, grandchildren, and world peace."
Over on the Senate side, The Washington Post's Dana Milbank reported that Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., "punctuated the opening prayer with shouts of "Yes!" and "Mmmhmmm!" and "Yes, Lord!" and "Yes, in Jesus's name!"
How's that for religious themes? And there's more:
When he was sworn in, he twice cried out "Hallelujah!" and then "Amen!" Minutes later, he was installed as Senate president pro tempore, the majority party's most senior member. "Yeah, man! Yeah, man!" he shouted. "Hallelujah!" "I do, so help me God!" he shouted when the oath was administered. "Yeah, man!"
Congress should never be confused with a monolithic body. In religion, the 110th is shaping up to be quite eclectic and open about it.