So Help Me, Gods? Presidents and Other Public Officials Can Take Their Oaths on a Bible, the Bhagavad Gita-Or Even a Lawbook

Article excerpt

On March 4, 1825, John Quincy Adams was sworn in as the sixth president of the United States. When Chief Justice John Marshall administered the oath, Adams placed his hand not on a Bible, but on a law book.

How did Adams get away with that? Doesn't the Constitution require the president and other holders of federal office to swear on a Bible?

No, it does not. Adams was free to swear on a law book because the Constitution says nothing about Bibles or any other religious tomes concerning the Oath of Office. In fact, the president-elect isn't required to take the oath on any book.

Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution deals only with the language the president is to use when sworn in. The passage is surprisingly spare and gives few specifics about the ceremony.

The section states that the president (no other officeholders are mentioned) is required to make the following oath or affirmation: "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."

Over the years, the presidential swearing-in ceremony became more elaborate and was extended to holders of other federal offices. Various traditions and practices grew up around it. But they are just that: traditions, not requirements.

The use of a Bible is one of these traditions. Politicians today often make a big deal out of their swearing-in ceremonies and may bring a family Bible along for the occasion. It's not mandated.

In addition, presidents add the words "So help me, God" to the oath. The use of this phrase has become ubiquitous and so familiar to Americans that many people believe it must be required by the Constitution. But, again, it is not.

The language does not appear in the Oath of Office as it is outlined in the Constitution. Tradition has it that George Washington added these words during the nation's first swearing-in ceremony, and every president since has followed suit.

Interestingly, there is no solid historical evidence that Washington did this. The story could be a legend; it did not surface until the 1850s, long after Washington's death. Nevertheless, the phrase was at some point grafted onto the Oath of Office and has trickled down to other oaths as well.

Over the years, the presidential swearing-in ceremony evolved from a rather simple event to part of a larger inaugural celebration. As it did so, it took on some of the trappings of what scholars call "civil religion"--the practice of using religious language and symbols to buttress state power.

Civil religion is usually non-sectarian. Thus, oaths refer to God, not Jesus Christ, and the religious profession on U.S. money--In God We mist--invokes a rather generic deity.

As inaugurals became more elaborate, presidents began using historic Bibles for swearing-in ceremonies. Sometimes, they would even open the book to certain passages they felt were meaningful.

The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies notes that a Masonic Bible owned by Washington was frequently employed. Jimmy Carter incorporated the Washington Bible (and a Carter family Bible) into his ceremony on Jan. 20, 1977.

George W. Bush had hoped to use the same Masonic Bible during his swearing in on Jan. 20, 2001, but the weather was so bad it was thought best not to expose the historic tome to the elements. A Bush family Bible was used instead.

When Barack Obama takes the oath of office this month, he plans to use the same Bible that was brought out for his first swearing in, the Lincoln Bible. This volume, now owned by the Library of Congress, was used by Abraham Lincoln when he took the Oath of Office on March 4, 1861.

Swearing-in ceremonies, all the way from president to small-town mayors, have become a common feature of American political life. …