This editorial by Prof. Bowen was published in the News Leader (Staunton VA: January 22, 2007): A9.
by Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
(Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401)
Goode's letter is available on the internet at The Smoking Gun.
For more on Lionel Rothschild, see:
Stanley Weintraub, Charlotte and Lionel: A Rothschild Love Story (New York: The Free Press, 2003).
Gordon L. Bowen, "Rothschild Is First Jewish Member of British Parliament," Great Events from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900, John Powell, editor (Pasadena CA: Salem Press, 2007): 966-968.
Since it sometimes is difficult to read every word of a scanned article (as above), here is a clear copy of the original version of this editorial for readers' reference:
The recent controversy over Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who took his Congressional oath of office on the Muslim holy book, the Koran, brought much heat but yielded little light here in Virginia. As the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, Ellison tactfully chose to associate himself with our nation's Founding Fathers and their values. On Thomas Jefferson's own copy of that holy book Ellison this month placed his hand as he swore loyalty to this nation and our Constitution.
But that gesture remains controversial. A chief opponent to Rep. Ellison's choice was none other than the Virginian whose district includes Thomas Jefferson's hometown of Charlottesville: Fifth District U.S. Representative (Republican) Virgil Goode of Rocky Mount. On December 7, 2006, Goode wrote a constituent that "I do not subscribe to using the Koran in any way," going on to insult the newly elected "Muslim representative from Minnesota" by linking him to the problem of illegal immigration from the Middle East. We've long known Goode to be short on tact, but in this case he was short on fact as well. Ellison, an African American, is neither an immigrant, nor from the Middle East. The fact that Ellison's faith tradition is Islam would not have troubled Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom (1786). Does a single Muslim in Congress trouble the people of this region as it troubles the representative of Jefferson's home district today? I certainly hope not.
Our world is too torn by sectarian identities already for leaders to make things worse. When the décor of the public square is tailored to exclude some of our neighbors on the basis of their varied faiths, we all lose. The global learning behind this lesson must be made to penetrate even the hardest hearts among us here. Whether in Northern Ireland or Iraq, sectarian attitudes have produced such thin dividends: terrorism on the basis of religious differences; civil wars. Yet, time and again, communities from Lebanon to Belfast, Basra to Mosul, have preferred to choose leaders who pick the scab of sectarian division. And now Virginia, too.
A global perspective can instruct us about these dangers, which lurk even when only insults are being tossed about. In the 1850s, a virtually identical controversy divided our British cousins. Lionel Rothschild, a prominent English Jew, was elected to the British House of Commons five consecutive times, 1847-1857, and on each occasion was refused his seat because he would not swear his oath of loyalty on the Christian Bible. Whigs and Liberals rallied to Rothschild's side, convincing steadily growing majorities in the Commons three times to pass legislation to revise the oath. But, even as the elected representatives in the House of Commons grasped the need for Parliament to reflect the fact that it governed a community of Christians and non-Christians, the unelected House of Lords refused each bill. The "Christians Only" law held, supported by the archaic Lords and their public supporters, largely led by outspoken Church of England conservatives, such as the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce.
Wilberforce incited with more flourish than our man from Rocky Mount, Virgil Goode. He argued that to let a Jew into Parliament, "you destroy the groundwork of Christianity, . you will destroy Christian England." Arguing a shrill, sectarian basis for the exclusion of minorities weakened not Rothschild but the Lords who so argued. In ten years of public howling over the choice of Rothschild by London voters, the Lords succeeded only in educating the public of the excessive power still held by unelected barons, dukes and other clowns leaping about the Lords' chambers. In 1858, Liberal Prime Minister Lord Palmerston began to treat Rothschild as if he already was a member of the House of Commons, appointing him to a Committee despite the fact he had taken no oath. Finally, the Lords cracked, passed a bill to permit each House of Parliament to create its own oath, and Rothschild was sworn in as a member of Commons with his hand on the Jewish Torah.
In less than fifty years, the House of Commons would strip all meaningful powers from the House of Lords, illustrating the consequences for those who wield sectarian swords against the stronger shield: the voice of the people. The Honorable Rep. Goode ought not fear a loss of power similar to the loss suffered by the bigots in the House of Lords. But he already has squandered the dignity with which this people empowered him to act in pursuit of the common good of our community.
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