Using any particular religious scripture for the swearing-in ceremonies for politicians and court witnesses poses the obvious problem that not everyone endorses the content of the given scripture. If someone does not believe at all in a particular God or scripture, then they may object to being forced to invoke this foreign or disagreeable belief system. Even if they are willing to recite the words and mimic the gestures, their oath would not carry the intended religious weight, since they do not believe that this particular God holds them accountable. This problem applies on a "sliding scale" to people who believe in the Bible in diverse ways or with loose or inconsistent interpretations. People do not all believe in the same God in the same way, and there is no sense in making them recite words that presume they do.
For example, Donald Trump, who was raised Presbyterian, was heavily influenced by the so-called "prosperity gospel" and, when he was sworn in as U.S. President, didn't currently belong to any church, according to Ken Briggs, writing for the National Catholic Reporter in January 2017. Omarosa Manigault Newman's book Unhinged claims that Trump wanted to be sworn in as president on a copy of his own book, The Art of the Deal.
In secular contexts, swearing on the Bible is nonsensical and causes dissension. Its practice for politicians' swearing-in ceremonies in the United States nevertheless has an interesting history that can be traced hundreds of years back to England. Melissa Mohr explains it well in her 2013 book "Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing," which is about the history of oaths as well as obscenities.
When England was a Catholic country, swearing oaths on physical copies of the Bible held a prominent place in the culture. A religious movement whose adherents were known as Lollards opposed this practice in the early 15th century, as did Quakers in the 17th century. Lollards were willing to swear verbally by God, but were burned at the stake for being unwilling to swear on the Bible. Quakers would not swear at all, which meant that they couldn't take oaths of allegiance and couldn't testify in court. Mohr writes, "A good technique for getting rid of a Quaker you didn't like was to accuse him of doing something illegal. Whether or not he was guilty, when he refused to take an oath his property would be confiscated and he would be thrown in jail for contempt of court."
Aware of this religious history in England, the American founding fathers aimed for a more secular start to the nation in the 18th century. The U.S. Constitution prescribes this presidential oath of office: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." This secular statement avoids the difficulties that presented themselves in England. Article VI of the Constitution additionally clarifies: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
The term 'book-oath' goes back at least as far as Shakespeare's Henry IV. Part II contains the words: "I put thee now to thy / book-oath: deny it, if thou canst." In pre-Revolutionary America, swearing on the Bible served as a religious test "designed to marginalize infidel deists like Thomas Paine, and religious dissidents especially like members of the Dutch Reformed Church," according to information received from Ray Soller.
Placing one's hand on the Bible
Despite this, many U.S. presidents have recited the oath with their hands on a Bible. George Washington did so at his first inauguration. (For the next several presidents after him, there are only persistent but unconfirmed national myths.) The next well substantiated claim to this is for the seventh U.S. president, Andrew Jackson, at his inauguration in 1829, followed by the eleventh U.S. president, James Polk, who also kissed the Bible when he swore on it at his 1845 inauguration, an event that was publicized by telegraph. Social critic and comic Dean Obeidallah singled out "two presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams, [who] did not use a Bible at their swearing-in ceremonies," but many others certainly did.
Saying 'So help me God'
David B. Parker wrote for the History News Network:
"...we have no convincing contemporary evidence that any president said 'so help me God' until September 1881, when Chester A. Arthur took the oath after the death of James Garfield. William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt said 'so help me God,' as has every president since then. But before 1933, we have good evidence for only four (of thirty-one)."
Of potential interest, see "Kiss the Book...You're President...: 'So Help Me God' and Kissing the Book in the Presidential Oath of Office," Frederick B. Jonassen, 2012 in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 20, Issue 3, Article 5.
In the nineteenth century, England's laws for swearing-in ceremonies were challenged by the elections to Parliament of Lionel de Rothschild and David Salomons, who were Jews, and Charles Bradlaugh, who was an atheist. The Jews' proposed modifications to the oath were not accepted, while the atheist was willing to swear the Christian oath but was denied the opportunity. For showing up to work in the chamber to which they'd been elected, Salomons was fined heavily and ejected from the room, and Bradlaugh was arrested and jailed. With perseverance, eventually the Jewish Relief Act (1858) and the Oaths Act (1888) enabled non-Christians to complete the oath of office.
A secular approach seems the obvious solution to the conflict. U.S. CIA Director John Brennan was sworn in on a copy of the U.S. Constitution in 2013. Yet some politicians, seeing that Christian politicians swear in on Bibles, wish to swear in on a copy of their own religious text. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim to be elected as a member of the U.S. Congress, was sworn in on a copy of the Koran that was published in 1764 and was owned by Thomas Jefferson. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) participated in the ceremony and also placed her hand on the book.
Endorsers of the Bible, meanwhile, often are reluctant to allow others the opportunity to use their own texts, so the conflict perpetuates itself. Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) took advantage of Ellison's pending swearing-in to release a statement calling for stricter immigration laws, without which, he said, "there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran." Goode claimed that restrictions on immigration, particularly from the Middle East, "are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped." (All this, despite the fact that Ellison is African-American and was born in Detroit.) Similarly, Dennis Prager, a talk-show host and a member of the council that oversees the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., complained about Ellison's anticipated use of the Koran. He said he feared that the nation would "abandon its Judeo-Christian values" and that he himself, as a Jew, would "get hurt" as a consequence. At their base, Goode's and Prager's expressed concerns are not about the ritual use of the Koran in American politics, but rather about Muslim Americans in public service.
Debates like this occur in many countries. For example, Israel's national anthem, "Hatikva," is written from a Jewish point of view and refers to Jews living freely in their land of Zion. This often causes distress for the one-quarter of Israelis who are not Jewish. In the February 2013 swearing-in ceremony for new parliament members, several Arab politicians left the room to protest the words of the anthem. Mere suggestions to make the language more inclusive, even when those suggestions are vague and are made by Jewish politicians, still prompt strong opposition.
Alternative choices based on values
When Eric Lander was sworn in as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in June 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris’ office asked him what book he wanted to use in the ceremony. Lander is Jewish, but he says his religion is “complicated to describe" beyond that. He understood the question of what book to swear in on as a question of "what’s in my mind and what’s in my heart," and he discussed it with his family, who realized "the question was values." He recalled a phrase from Jewish thought in Pirkei Avot within the Mishnah: “It’s not required that you complete the work, but neither may you refrain from it.” He located an edition that had been printed in 1492 and chose that book for the ceremony.
In their book Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore wrote (as excerpted in LitHub) that courts sometimes
insist that government invocation of God is not state sponsorship of religion but the solemnization of public occasions, as if there were no secular ways to give solemnity and gravitas — like taking the oath of office with a hand laid on the Constitution. The courts’ other defense of the governmental invocation of God is to maintain that through repeated use, “rote repetition,” religious language loses its religious significance and is merely and only “ceremonial.” Lost sight of here is the inherent contradiction; how can religious language both give solemnity and also be insignificant?
In short, the use of the Bible for swearing oaths originated hundreds of years ago as a Catholic tradition, and despite some Protestant opposition and American secularist reform, the practice continues today. The custom is confusing and unnecessary. Unless one literally believes in a God who holds people accountable for their oaths, one cannot believe that such an oath has any inherent force that makes people keep their promises.
From an irreligious or non-literal religious perspective, the only extra force of a public religious oath lies in its potential activation of reverence and shame in the oath-taker. But this assumes that the oath-taker (or perhaps the audience) has certain religious sensibilities. Not everyone does, so mandatory swearing on Bibles is a transparent affront to individuals' true belief systems. It is a coercive effort to tamp down intellectual and religious diversity in favor of a public show of conformity. Some find the ritual inspiring, but others find it off-putting. Therefore, it discourages unity while being mostly useless in enforcing promise-keeping.
This article was originally published to Helium Network on Dec. 10, 2013. It has been significantly revised in January 2017 thanks to input from Ray Soller.
Image by: Adrian Pingstone, 2005. The photograph is of a Latin Bible made in Belgium in 1407. © Public domain. The Bible is on display in Malmesbury Abbey in England. Wikimedia Commons.