Racial Equality

A NASA official was sworn in recently. She took the oath of office on a sci-fi novel by Carl Sagan.

  Rob Boston

This news item is a few weeks old but worth noting: In late September, Charity Weeden was sworn in as the new associate administrator for NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy. The ceremony was typical except for one thing: Weeden took the oath of office on a copy of Contact, a 1985 science fiction novel by famous astronomer Carl Sagan.

There is no mention of Weeden’s use of the novel in NASA’s press release about her swearing-in, but the book is clearly visible in a photo of the event. Hemant Mehta, who runs the “Friendly Atheist” blog, called Weeden’s use of the book “wonderful” and added, “[Y]ou have to appreciate the homage to someone who truly represented the joy and awe of exploring the universe and a book that questions what (or who) might be out there.” (Sagan’s only novel, Contact deals with humanity coming to grips with the reception of a message from extraterrestrials and forging plans to meet the aliens. It was a bestseller in 1985, and it was made into a popular movie 12 years later.)

Public officials don’t have to swear oaths of office on the Bible

Contrary to popular belief, politicians and public officials don’t have to swear oaths of office on the Bible or any other religious text. While many choose to use religious tomes, other types of books can be used. Increasingly, officials are using them.

In August 2019, Kelli Dunaway, a newly elected member of the St. Louis County Council in Missouri, chose to be sworn in on a copy of Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, a book by famous children’s author Dr. Seuss. In December of that year, three members of the Manlius, N.Y., Town Board took their oaths on copies of a book containing the town codes.

U.S. Constitution popular for swearing-in ceremonies

Other officials have used copies of the U.S. Constitution for swearing-in ceremonies. In 2014, when Suzan G. LeVine was sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Lichtenstein, she 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.

During a swearing-in ceremony in January 2023, U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.), a newly elected member of Congress, took the oath on a copy of the U.S. Constitution, and underneath it was a Spiderman comic book, a photo of his parents and a copy of his citizenship papers. Garcia said all the objects had great meaning to him.

So, this is just a reminder: If you’re ever elected or appointed to public office, by all means feel free to use a religious book if that’s meaningful for you. But if you want to go in another direction, you certainly have that right.

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