When President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office this month, the chances are good that he’ll have his hand resting on a Bible, most likely one that has some special significance for him.
It’s not surprising that Biden, a Roman Catholic who often highlighted his faith during the campaign and frequently employs religious rhetoric in his speeches, would use a Bible during the ceremony. But it is in no way required. Any use of the Bible (or any other religious book) during the Inauguration will be strictly up to Biden.
Inauguration Day has morphed into a day-long event of ceremony and celebration. It’s a day usually marked by parades, speeches, balls and dinners. (Some of that may be curtailed this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.) While these traditions have become familiar to many Americans, they’re merely custom.
The Constitution says nothing about the Inauguration Day ceremony or what form it should take. Information about the president’s Oath of Office is found in Article 2, Section 1, which states: “Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take 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.’”
Despite what many Americans believe, the oath does not end with the words “So help me, God” – although many presidents have chosen to add this phrase – and it’s not necessary for the president to place his hand on a Bible or any other text.
How did these traditions get started? In both cases, the altered oath and the use of the Bible, scholars tend to point to inauguration of the first president, George Washington. But the story of what really occurred in 1789 is murkier than many people believe.
There are enough eyewitness accounts to confirm that Washington did swear his oath on a Bible. As an oft-told story goes, Washington had reached Federal Hall in New York City, then the U.S. capital, when someone realized he had no Bible to swear on. An attendee, Jacob Morton, who was a Mason, dashed off to the nearby St. John’s Lodge and borrowed its Bible, which was returned to the Lodge after the swearing-in.
It’s a charming story, but it begs a question: Why did Washington (or his aides) conclude that he needed to swear on a Bible when the Constitution doesn’t specify that? Unfortunately, we don’t have the answer to that question – although we can speculate that swearing on Bibles was common at the time – but we do know that Washington established a practice that has been followed by most (but not all) presidents since.
The claim that Washington added the words “So help me, God” to the Oath of Office rests on much shakier foundations. There are no eyewitness accounts that it happened, the story didn’t surface until the 1850s and the sources that reported it aren’t considered to be reliable. Some Washington scholars believe it’s unlikely he would have felt that he had the power to alter the oath, given our first president’s well-known fealty to constitutional principles.
Nevertheless, both the use of Bibles and the additional words are now ingrained in inaugural ceremonies, although in the case of Bibles, the tradition started later than many people might believe.
The website of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC) lists no Bibles being used during the swearing-in ceremonies of several presidents who followed Washington, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson and others. The JCCIC does not consistently show Bibles being used until the inauguration of President James K. Polk in 1845.
When our nation’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams, took the Oath of Office in 1825, he read the oath from what he later called "a volume of laws" in his diary.
According to newspaper accounts of the time, President Franklin Pierce affirmed, rather than swore, the Oath of Office during his 1853 inauguration. (The option to affirm is included in the Constitution because members of some religious traditions refuse to swear oaths but will affirm them.)
In 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was hastily sworn in after the assassination of President William McKinley. Roosevelt had rushed to Buffalo, where McKinley had been shot by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. Roosevelt took the Oath of Office at the home of a friend, and no Bible was used during the private ceremony.
Some modern-day political leaders have also declined to use Bibles and have been sworn in on copies of the Constitution, law books or other tomes, both religious and non-religious.
In August 2019, Kelli Dunaway, a newly elected member of the St. Louis County Council in Missouri, swore the Oath of Office on a copy of Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by the popular author of children’s books, Dr. Seuss. Dunaway, a single mom, said the book’s message of empowerment had special meaning for her.
An even more unusual swearing-in occurred in 2014, when Suzan G. LeVine, who was being sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Lichtenstein, took the oath on a copy of the U.S. Constitution that had been downloaded to a Kindle. She was reportedly the first federal official sworn in on an e-reader.
Non-Christian political leaders have sworn oaths on Qurans and the books of other faiths. When former U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress and now Minnesota’s attorney general, announced in 2006 that he would take the oath on a copy of the Quran that had belonged to Thomas Jefferson, some Christian nationalist groups complained. Americans United and others were quick to point out that Ellison was entirely within his rights. (It should be noted that members of Congress are officially sworn in en masse, and no books are used during this ceremony. It is only during private ceremonies that are held later for the purposes of a photo-op that religious or law books are commonly used.)
Despite these examples, some Christian nationalists continue to insist that a Bible must be used during official swearing-in ceremonies. In December 2017, Ted Crockett, a spokesman for unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, appeared on CNN and defended Moore’s position that Muslims should not be allowed to hold public office. Crockett justified Moore’s bigotry by saying, “You have to swear on a Bible to be an elected official in the United States of America.”
When CNN host Jake Tapper pointed out that this was not true, Crockett just stood there with his mouth hanging open. It was news to him.
As Americans United noted at the time in a blog post, Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution deals briefly with how members of Congress, members of state legislatures and others are to take their oaths. All it says is, “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution. …” The wording of the oath is not specified.
Bottom line: If you’re ever elected to public office, whether it is a local position or any other all the way up to the presidency, feel free to take the Oath of Office on whatever book is meaningful to you – or none at all.