Not So Goode

When James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the rest of the Founders devised our system of representative democracy, they envisioned a system where persons—okay, men—of temperance, substance and education would hold public office.  


They clearly did not envision Representative Virgil Goode.


There has been quite a reaction to Representative Goode’s letter decrying the election of Keith Ellison. Ellison, who now represents Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District, is a Muslim. Goode’s letter criticises Ellison for taking his oath of office on the Koran, and warns darkly that his election is a harbinger of the dreadful things that will happen unless Congress restricts immigration. 


Critics of Representative Goode have made two related charges: that he is ignorant, and that he is a bigot.


I don’t know whether Representative Goode is a genuine bigot or simply sounds like one. The accusation of ignorance (as opposed, one assumes, to stupidity, which may or may not be equally implicated) rests on several facts that the Congressman is either unaware of, or conveniently overlooking. First, Congressional oaths are not taken on holy texts—neither bibles nor Korans nor any other. Secondly, Congressman Ellison is not an immigrant, nor is he the son, grandson or great-grandson of immigrants. His forebears have been in the United States for 250 years. And thirdly, the United States Constitution explicitly forbids religious tests for office, and protects religious liberty. To put this in language even Representative Goode can understand, liberty means that people are free to hold beliefs other than those held by Virgil Goode.


Goode has refused to retract his remarks. Ironically, in a response to the widespread criticism, he reportedly said, “I wish more people would take a stand and stand up for the principles on which this country was founded.” Given the Congressman’s tenuous hold on American history, it’s a remark calculated to make high school government teachers across the nation sob uncontrollably.


What seems to have eluded Congressman Goode is the nature of “the principles on which this country was founded.” Even when America hasn’t lived up to those principles—and we frequently haven’t—the  official American vision has been one of a society in which group identity is legally irrelevant, a society where an individual’s conduct is the only proper concern of government. In America, individuals are supposed to be rewarded or punished based upon their behavior. Race, religion, gender and similar markers of group affiliation are simply irrelevant to our legal status. No matter how meaningful those affiliations may be to us personally, the government may not award or restrict our rights based upon them.

The human animal seems to have been hard-wired to see the world as “Us versus Them.”  That’s okay—whether we like to admit it or not, most of us do categorize the world through that lens. The genius of America is that we define “them” by their behavior, not their identity.


I hate to tell you this, Congressman Goode, but in my lexicon, you are definitely a “them.”