Swearing on the Koran

There is controversy brewing in the state courts of North Carolina over the practice of swearing court witnesses in using “the Holy Scriptures.” A group of outspoken Muslims are demanding that the Koran be permitted to be used in this procedure. Callers to a local radio show here where I am writing voiced a range of opinions on the matter. Perhaps its not surprising that many felt that one should be able to use any “holy book” they wished. In our post-modern age of tolerance and religious pluralism this makes perfect sense. Such a view of our courts provides the Bible to a Christian, the Torah to a Jew, and the Koran to a Muslim. Perhaps this is not so bad. All three of those religions seemingly point to somewhat similar precepts (never mind that Christianity and Islam are in many fundamental ways diametrically opposite one another).

But what about the secularization of spirituality that pushes our judicial environment beyond these options? What does a Buddhist choose? A white supremecist? An atheist, a Wiccan, a Satanist? Far-fetched and extreme, you say? For the sake of argument, let’s grant that point. What about just the inevitable nuances of personal, subjective opinions and preferences about spiritual truth? If the act of swearing upon a Bible as a testimony to an absolute truth (which this writer sees to be a direct contradiction of Biblical truth, anyway) becomes simply a matter of personal perspective regarding what is holy, what does this suggest about our view of truth, virtue and law? While the act itself may have little bearing upon whether or not one actually tells the truth as a witness in court, it symbolizes something much deeper, and, I fear, more sinister; namely that truth is no longer a matter of transcendent fact.

Religion, by definition, deals with questions of meaning and human reality. There is no such thing as a society or culture free from religion or religious issues. Every question of right or wrong, justice or injustice, law or lawlessness makes a claim to some fixed standard of truth. Every religion is an interpretation as to the nature and knowability of this standard. Christianity interprets reality in the belief that the transcendant (God) has “broken through” into human reality and made itself knowable. Islam interprets that reality in the belief that the transcendant is unknowable, completely sovereign, impersonal, and arbitrary in divine decree and activity. Buddhism, Hinduism, and many other Oriental religions interpret reality through the belief that the transcendent is impersonal, plural, cyclical, unknowable, and unattainable. These three interpretations are direct contradictions to one another. Reality cannot be both Christian and Islamic simultaneously; they each lay claims to exclusive understandings of reality. Islam and Hinduism are based in two polar views of the divine (monotheistic versus polytheistic).

Each interpretation of reality produces vastly different conceptions of truth, justice, civil order, and a system of law. More significantly, any society that wishes to function and remain cohesive can only be based on one interpretation. Such is the case with the American system of government based on the Judeo-Christian interpretion of the world. This is the foundational assumption for how our courts and judiciary are to conduct themselves. It is both a logical fallacy and a cultural timebomb to believe that other worldviews that have a completely different understanding of justice and law can work within the American framework.

Yet that is exactly where we are headed. It may well be that the debate over the Koran as an acceptable substitute for the Bible is nothing more than a matter of religious freedom. Perhaps it is. And it may also be that the debate is practically a moot point because, as one radio listener said, people lie whether they swear on the Bible or not and therefore it matters not whether the book is the Bible, the Koran, or a Betty Crocker cookbook. That, too, is likely true. Yet, it’s the thought and philosophy underlying the question that should be of greater concern. Allowing people the freedom to worship as they choose is just and right. The Gospel cannot be imposed and when tried in history has been terrible destructive. However, we must recognize that a stable and free society rests on one particular view of human reality and cannot coexist with other contradictory interpretations. That is not a matter of intolerance but of fact.