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Dogpile on the Prager

December 8, 2006

Dennis Prager, perhaps the most gentlemanly of all A.M. talk radio hosts, has been receiving a lot of reactionary flak recently for his critique of Representative-elect Keith Ellison’s reported statement that he will replace the traditional Bible at his swearing-in with a Quran. The appalling irony is that many of Prager’s critics accuse him of being divisive, but in the process have distorted his statements, thrown around volatile smears of “racist” and “Islamophobe”… in other words, drummed up a lot of unnecessary divisiveness.

Not only the Counsel on American-Islamic Relations, but, ironically, the Anti-Defamation League, have engaged in defaming Prager, a famously active Jew, as a bigot. This is the man with whom I first became familiar through his hosting of the belated “Religion on the Line” show on 790 AM here in L.A., on which Dennis regularly included Islamic theologians to join other clerics in thoughtful interreligious discussion Sunday nights. I never heard anything but respect in those dialogues. Now, however, all that is forgotten as Prager has failed to disregard an apparently new dictate of Political Correctness: Thou Shalt Not Criticize a Muslim.

Agree with him or not, Prager responds to his critics and offers a solution in a recent column that is a must-read if you’ve only read the headlines and smears. A key excerpt from his conclusion:

It is not I, but Keith Ellison, who has engaged in disuniting the country. He can still help reunite it by simply bringing both books [the Quran and the Bible] to his ceremonial swearing-in. Had he originally announced that he would do that, I would have written a different column — filled with praise of him.

I’m not certain that this whole issue has quite the import that Prager gives it; but I don’t see how Ellison can responsibly reject the compromise solution Prager offers, one which would create a lot of good will towards Ellison and his fellow Muslim Americans. CAIR appears to be ignoring the invitation. If I may respectfully address the Representative-elect: Mr. Ellison, please build a bridge here.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2006 5:33 pm

    Just because a lot of people were unreasoned and abusive in their criticism of Prager didn’t make his original wrongheadedness any more correct, nor his follow-up so-called middle ground any more palatable. Just because Prager is a literate and thoughtful moralist neither Christian nor Muslim doesn’t insulate this muddled bit of syncretism from accurately leveled charges of promoting divisiveness.

    Suggesting that Ellison ought to subvert his Muslim faith to contribute to a spuriously construed Judeo-Christian American “unity” is lousy from any vantage point.

    It renders the Bible a symbolic talisman of just one country, instead God’s unique witness to all mankind.

    It sends the message that we don’t really mean it when we say our constitution guarantees freedom of religion and freedom from any religious test as a condition for the oath of public office.

    It needlessly antagonizes secularists and Muslim moderates around the world, undercutting the stated message (from GWB on down) that this is not a war between the West and Islam.

    People should be civil when disagreeing with Prager — this is uncontested. But Prager’s misguided construction of a Judeo-Christian US civil religion ought to be contested, and vigorously.

  2. December 16, 2006 12:01 am

    Andrew- I think your are misunderstanding Prager’s argument. I agree with Keith that it may not deserve the import that Prager has given it- but it is undeniable that the negative reaction to his column was quite revealing, especially since most people have disagreed with a different argument than he was making.

    I think his point was that the Bible is not a symbolic talisman to Ellison, Prager, W or anyone else, but the actual book our country has derived its values from. Neither is he saying Ellison or anyone else “subvert” his faith to the Bible. The ceremony in question is largely symbolic. In that ceremony, Ellison has the chance to honor tradition and the unoffical Book of the American people and say “I take your values seriously”.

    By taking the Koran, I think Prager notes rightly that the door is open for anyone now to “bring their own book”- whatever is personally meaningful to them- to the swearing in ceremony. It’s not an issue of bringing the Koran, it’s not using the Bible.

    I was initially more of your mindset on this Andrew, but listening to Dennis explain further made me consider it much more reasonable. I think that the option of using the Koran is probably OK, but I think it would be a nice gesture to use the Bible as well. It’s not a theological statement as you I think are making it out to be, but a political and practical one. Where would the line be drawn? What book is now not permissible?

  3. December 28, 2006 10:13 am

    That Prager’s critics were unreasoned, abusive, and demagogic is sad, deplorable and perhaps important in its own right. None of this makes Prager’s point for him in any way, of course. Maybe we should have a discussion on substandard public discourse. Rob calls attention to this all the time, and usually each side accuses the other of hypersensitivity, and it quickly devolves to insipid grievance nursing.

    The contention that an America founded on the core value of freedom of religion and explicitly specifying a swearing-on procedure allowing either [religious] oath or [nonreligious] affirmation and abjuring religious tests as qualification for office somehow needs to be bolstered by or even derives any symbolic comfort from the honoring of an “unofficial [sacred] Book” is preposterous, indeed unAmerican.

    I understand how someone can call this situation “not theological, but political and practical” and observe that the swearing-in has a largely symbolic relationship to the object (Bible, Qu’ran, mother’s eyes, lucky rabbit’s foot) that one swears on. The whole point of having such a “touchstone” object is to guarantee the word of the person taking the oath, emphatically not to burnish the symbolic stature of the touchstone. If it were, then the Bible-free “affirmation” that our oath-forbidden Quaker founding fathers no doubt insisted upon wouldn’t be an option. This also shows that sometimes what’s merely a symbolic gesture to me may be a deeply meaningful act to someone else’s conscience.

    You are correct when you say that it’s not about the Qu’ran, it’s about whether or not we involve the Bible (mandate, make normative, stigmatize those who abstain for conscientious reasons). This is also precisely why the whole “just-so story” rationale about Christianity (OK, “Judeo-“, pace Prager) being the predominant source of America’s values is such a distraction.

    Ellison wants to swear loyalty to the Constitution. And he wants to do so in the way which best guarantees his word, i.e., by the Qu’ran. Suggesting that it’s better for him to use a book which isn’t authoritative for him, in order to make a symbolic statement of nominal unity, places this Pragerian crypto-theocratic interpretation of American history above the direct substance of the constitutional language. I know which one I value more, particularly when it comes to taking oaths of constitutional office.

    As to the fear that this will open the doors to, say, Barbara Boxer swearing in on a copy of “The Feminine Mystique” or James Imhofe on a copy of Exxon Mobil’s 10-Q filing, I say throw the library doors wide and let the good people of the 5th district of Minnesota decide whether or not Rep. Ellison adequately respects their values. They’ll be the judge of whether Ellison’s conduct is divisive and parochial (and vote him out) or traditionally independent, quintessentially American, and retain him.

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