WASHINGTON -- In multi-culti America, there's no worse offense than being a "racist," and no word has suffered more abuse.
We've had a taste of that recently as Muslim and Jew have slugged it out over whether a Koran can be used at a private swearing-in ceremony for Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress.
Dennis Prager, a popular talk-show host and columnist, who happens to be Jewish--as well as a thoroughly decent fellow--wrote a column protesting Ellison's insistence on injecting his religious preference into an American tradition:
"Forgive me, but America should not give a hoot what Keith Ellison's favorite book is. ... If you are incapable of taking an oath on [the Bible], don't serve in Congress."
Prager has been pilloried from all sides. In the blogosphere, he's been called everything from racist to Islamophobic. Former New York Mayor Ed Koch called Prager a "bigot" and a "schmuck," and is demanding his resignation or removal from the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, on which both men serve.
Most entertaining has been a similar demand from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, lest Muslims worldwide get a negative impression about "America's commitment to religious tolerance."
Irony must be basking.
CAIR routinely demonstrates intolerance for any opinion deemed insensitive to its views and targets individuals and institutions for cyber-posses and technomobs.
Back through the looking glass, Prager says his objections have nothing to do with race or religious intolerance, but with a concern for American solidarity. His premise is that the country is in danger of unraveling if we continue to erode traditions.
Prager asserts that the Bible has been used for swearing-in ceremonies since George Washington. Which is true, except when it isn't. Not every elected official has used the Bible, including some Jews (Koch, a U.S. representative from 1969 to 1977, used a Hebrew Bible for his initial swearing-in) and some Quakers, including Herbert Hoover, whose beliefs prohibited the swearing of oaths.
The U.S. Constitution, meanwhile, leaves plenty of wiggle room for those who prefer not to make religious statements. Eugene Volokh, constitutional law professor at UCLA, has written that requiring someone to swear on the Bible would violate the Constitution's provision that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
It appears that Prager is, at least technically, wrong. But his concerns are not those of a hate-monger. Prager is merely the quarterback in the latest scrimmage over ideas in post-Sept. 11, 2001, America.
There is a growing sense, both here and in Europe, that Western civilization is under siege by the radical Muslim world, the expressed goal of which is to convert the rest of us. There's not much wiggle room in Shariah law for optional religious practices. Or, we note, accessorizing wardrobes.
On a certain level, one can understand Prager's view that introducing the Koran into American government is a taunt to traditional values.
On another level, those same values allow us to see Ellison's legitimate wish to swear on the holy book of his choosing. What Christian or Jew duly elected in a predominantly Muslim country would want to be forced to swear on a Koran?
The punch line, of course, is that our religious tolerance is shared by few Muslim nations, some of which won't allow a Bible to enter the country. Our better angels may yet be our worst enemies.
Obviously, Ellison could forgo the Koran and affirm as others have. That he insists on the Koran is probable cause to infer that he's trying to make a statement and assert himself as a Muslim in the U.S. Congress.
Before Sept. 11, that singular act might not have drawn attention. But that was then.
Hoisting the red flag, as Prager has done, isn't an act of bigotry. It is the understandable reflex of a man who, as Prager himself puts it, knows that a Bible-swearing nation has been, and will be, a better place for Jews to live than one that swears on the Koran.
Genius is not required to grasp that concept, but civility is critical to debating these issues. Name-calling and showboating righteousness--or demanding punitive action against those who voice an unpopular opinion--is the wrong way up a dead-end street.
Radical Islam loves that sort of dogmatic intransigence.