Virgil Goode is the congressman for Virginia’s 5th district, a large swatch of inland territory that extends from around Charlottesville to the North Carolina border. It is conservative and mostly rural, unlike the more liberal population centers around Richmond and the D.C. suburbs that have lately elected moderate Democrats for governor and senator.
So one would expect that it would elect conservative representatives to Congress, but there is no law requiring it to elect fools.
Rep. Goode is either a fool or thinks that the voters of his district are such, because of the stunt he has now pulled. In response to the news that newly elected Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), an African American convert to Islam, was going to be sworn in on the Koran, Goode sent out a constituent letter which denounced this and related it to the issue of “immigration.”
In the first place, neither the Constitution nor federal laws dictate that newly elected congresspeople be sworn in on the Bible. They can be sworn in on the Christian Bible, the Jewish Torah, the Koran, the telephone book, the Communist Manifesto or the Kama Sutra or no book at all. The Constitution clearly states that there is no religious test for any elected or appointed office in the United States. This is not in the First Amendment but in the original text of the Constitution, Article VI Section 3.
This has been a controversial issue in other countries, but never here, until Ellison was elected. In the UK, there was a famous incident when in 1847 Lionel de Rothschild, an observant Jew, was elected to the British House of Commons and asked to be sworn in using the Old Testament but not the New. The Speaker of the House would not let him take his seat. Benjamin Disraeli, a Jewish convert to Christianity, strongly objected to this and eventually the law was changed. But no such law has ever existed in this country.
Another issue is that Goode associated Ellison’s choice of the Quran with “illegal immigration.” Ellison is an African American who can trace his ancestry in this country back to at least the early 1700s, but for the likes of Goode, apparently, he is still a “foreigner.” This is reminiscent of Goode’s fellow Virginian, outgoing Sen. George Allen, who lost his seat after he greeted a Virginia-born man of South Asian origin by calling him a monkey (macaca, in Latin, Italian and Portuguese) and saying to him “welcome to America.” The fact that Mr. Sidarth had a “foreign” sounding name and a dark complexion meant, for Sen. Allen, that he was inherently a foreigner, even if his parents had come here with the Jamestown colonists. Foreigners are foreign-looking people who speak foreign languages and practice “foreign” religions (anything but Protestant Christianity) and, for all we know, eat foreign foods, and all of them can be considered “illegals.” It’s so simple! Them and us, right?
Or rather, this is how Goode, Allen and their ilk pitch to their conservative white electoral base, whether they themselves really believe this or not. They seek to nurture a right-wing vote-generating attitude toward nationality and citizenship that is akin to that espoused by former fascist parties and regimes: being a U.S. citizen is not merely a matter of belief in democracy, justice and the rule of law, but also of blood, language and culture. Even if non-Anglo Americans believe in the values the country professes and play by all the rules, there is still something threatening about them, and if they breed too much or too much of them come in, they are going to swamp “us” and “contaminate our culture” with their own self-evidently inferior practices.
Politicians like Goode and Allen are bolstered by “academics” like Samuel P. Hundington, who warns about cultural contamination from Muslims and Latinos, in a couple of books that are so shockingly ignorant and poorly researched that only an Ivy League professor could have produced them. And of course there are figures like Pat Buchanan who have made political careers out of stoking the fires of xenophobia.
Goode won his last election, but it is in the national interest that he and his kind never win one again.
Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist who lives in northern Virginia.