Eric Lander, the new director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was sworn in yesterday. He took the Oath of Office on a 529-year-old copy of the ancient Jewish text Pirkei Avot, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Public officials who choose to take oaths of office on texts other than the Bible often spark Christian nationalist outrage. (Muslim public officials who use Qurans really get them going.) Many Christian nationalists, including Q-Anon crank U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), have insisted that the law requires that the Bible be used for swearing-in ceremonies.
It does not. Here are the facts:
Nothing in the Constitution requires that a Bible be used when the president takes the Oath of Office. Article 2, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution deals with the Oath of Office for the president. It lists the wording for the oath – which, by the way, does not end with the words “So help me, God” – but says nothing about Bibles.
To be sure, many public officials do take their oaths of office on Bible. But that’s a matter of tradition and personal choice, not a requirement.
Members of Congress and state and local lawmakers are not required to use Bibles either. Article VI, Section 3, of the Constitution outlines how members of Congress, members of state legislatures and others are to take their oaths. It states, “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.” No wording is specified, and no books are mentioned.
Members of Congress are officially sworn in en masse during a brief ceremony, and no books, religious or otherwise, are used. It is only during private ceremonies that are held later for the purpose of a photo-op that books are commonly used.
A public official can use a religious text other than the Bible. If he or she chooses, a public official can take the Oath of Office on texts reflecting the beliefs of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Wicca or another faith. Many have done so. In 2007, former U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) took the oath on a copy of the Quran that had been owned by Thomas Jefferson.
A public official can use a non-religious book. In January 2020, three newly elected members of the Manilus, N.Y., Town Board took their oaths on a book containing the town code. Other political leaders have used copies of the U.S. Constitution. In 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. You don’t even have to use a physical book. 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.
Leaving this to individual choice makes perfect sense. Despite the cries of outrage from Christian nationalists, nothing would be gained by compelling people to swear an oath on a religious book that holds no meaning to them. In fact, that would grossly violate the right of conscience and make a mockery of the religious freedom our First Amendment protects.