So Help Me, Gods?

Presidents And Other Public Officials Can Take Their Oaths On A Bible, The Bhagavad Gita, Or Even A Lawbook

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 Trust – 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. But they’re hardly the only example of oath taking.

Any American who watches legal dramas on television is familiar with the courtroom oath to “tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me, God.” This is usually said while the witness places his or her left hand on the Bible while raising the right.

What is the origin of this practice?

Swearing oaths is an age-old activity, and it has often been tied to prevailing religious sentiment. In the pre-Christian era, ancient Romans swore oaths to the emperor or to the gods. When Christianity became established, the practice morphed to include Christian language and symbols.

In an era in which many people feared the power of God more than the state, swearing an oath on the Bible made a certain amount of sense. In medieval times, the state’s power to punish was certainly real but temporal. God’s punishment, by contrast, was eternal. Failure to tell the truth to the government meant more than time in a jail; it put your immortal soul at risk.

Many legal practices that were adopted in Western Europe, with its strong Christian heritage, were transferred to the United States. The use of Bibles in courtrooms for oath taking was among them. A North Carolina law passed in 1777, for example, mandates that the “Holy Scriptures” be used for courtroom oaths.

Today, many courts maintain the practice, but it’s largely symbolic. If a witness testifying in court fails to tell the truth, the judge isn’t likely to wait for a lightning bolt to descend from the skies above. Rather, the witness will be charged with perjury.

Some courts are moving away from religiously tinged oaths and the use of Bibles. Alternative oaths often refer to “civil pains and penalties” – a fancy way of saying that anyone who lies under oath can end up with a fine or in prison.

Other courts still use Bibles but allow for an alternative secular oath for those who don’t want to make a religious declaration. (The presidential Oath of Office contains an echo of this, with its option to “affirm” instead. The language protects the right of some religious groups, such as Quakers, whose members oppose oath taking on religious grounds.)

Occasionally, problems still arise. In 1992, an assistant district attorney in Orange County, N.Y., agreed to a plan whereby a woman who had been accused of molesting her son was to swear to her innocence on a Bible in a Catholic church. In exchange, the charges against her would be dropped.

Although the woman – identified in court papers as Jane Doe – expressed some reluctance over the plan, she went through with it. The criminal charges were dropped, but Doe later sued over the matter, charging that she had been subjected to religious coercion by a government official.

The case went to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the district attorney had acted beyond his authority. Government officials, the court ruled, have no power to compel people to take part in religious rituals.

In 2007, a Muslim in North Carolina, Syidah Mateen, requested the right to swear in court on a Quran but was denied by a state judge, who instead allowed her to affirm and use no book. The American Civil Liberties Union took the matter to court, but the case was dismissed as moot since Mateen’s conscience had been accommodated.

Historically, U.S. courts have been open to alternative oaths. Eugene R. Milhizer, president and dean of Ave Maria School of Law, in 2009 wrote a legal paper for the Ohio State Law Journal that listed several 19th-century cases where non-Christians were accommodated in court with their own oaths.

In one Illinois case from 1896, a Chinese man was permitted to swear a “chicken oath,” a ritual that required the witness to sign his name on a piece of paper that was later burned outside the courthouse while a rooster’s head was chopped off. Such elaborate rituals would be unlikely to appear in American courtrooms today. Rather, most judges would probably substitute a secular oath and remind witnesses that lying in court is punishable by law.

Courtroom oaths are treated more seriously than oaths delivered during an elected official’s swearing-in. After all, lives might actually be at stake in a courtroom proceeding. But there are occasional flare-ups over other ceremonies as well.

In 2006, Keith Ellison was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of Minnesota. When Ellison, a Muslim, announced his intention to take the oath of office on a Quran, several right-wing figures went ballistic.

Conservative columnist Dennis Pra­ger implied that Ellison’s plan was an insult to the country.

“Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned,” observed Prager, “America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress.”

The American Family Association went so far as to advocate for federal legislation requiring members of Congress to swear on Bibles, and then-U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) asserted that Ellison’s act would empower Islamic terrorists.

Americans United pointed out that the entire fuss was a manufactured controversy courtesy of the Religious Right. Ellison, AU noted, was hardly the first member of Congress to take the oath on a different religious text; some members had used Jewish scriptures.

AU also noted that when members of Congress are officially sworn in en masse, they don’t use any religious text at all. Holy books are used only during a private photo op held later if the member wants one.

In the end, Ellison turned the tables on his critics by swearing on a 250-year-old Quran that had once been owned by Thomas Jefferson, one of history’s greatest advocates of religious liberty.

In 2009, Cecil Bothwell was elected to the Ashville, N.C., City Council. Bothwell, an atheist, declined to use a Bible or say “So help me, God,” during his swearing in. His political opponents argued that Bothwell was unfit to serve and even threatened litigation, but their protest went nowhere.

This month, U.S. Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), the first Hindu member of Congress, will take the oath on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. There will likely be more grumbling from the Religious Right. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum this summer told supporters of his presidential campaign that equality is a uniquely Christian concept that “doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions.”

Gabbard, a veteran of the Iraq War, dismissed such comments.

“It is stunning that some people in Congress would so arrogantly thumb their nose at the Bill of Rights,” she said. “When I volunteered to put my life on the line in defense of our country, no one asked me what my religion was.”

Americans United’s Legal Department addresses a few oath-related issues every year. AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith said people sometimes call or email to ask if they have to swear on a Bible or say “so help me, God” in court. Smith said he advises them to request alternatives, which most courts these days will provide.

In 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010, AU attorneys sent letters to officials with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services after receiving complaints about immigrants being told they had to swear a religious oath during the naturalization process. (In fact, federal law mandates that those who object to the religious content of the oath can omit that part.)

“It makes no sense for the government to compel someone to swear a reli­gious oath if the individual doesn’t believe it,” Smith said. “That’s one reason we advise courts and government agencies to have secular alternatives available for those who want them.”