Swearing on the Bible

At CNN.com Dean Obeidallah contends the “swearing” by the President ought to be over the Constitution, not the Bible.

Why do you think the President swears on the Bible? Do you think he (or should it be a she) should?

(CNN) – U.S. presidents should not be sworn into office with their hand on a Bible.

At Monday’s inauguration of his second term, President Barack Obama will raise his right hand and place his left on not one, but two Bibles: One owned by Abraham Lincoln and the other by Martin Luther King Jr.

The Constitution requires he give this oath of office: “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.”…

The Constitution does not require that the president take the oath of office by swearing on a Bible. That would have been a very simple requirement for the constitutional drafters to include. To the contrary, the Founders wanted to ensure that Americans of any faith — or no faith — could hold federal office.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Percival

    Do not swear at all…
    But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’
    Whatever is more than these is of the evil one. Mt. 5:37

  • Jerry Sather

    Military officers take their oath without a bible.

  • http://david-inrepair.blogspot.com David Grant

    Maybe the constitution doesn’t require it but have presidents always placed their hand on the Bible? If they have been sworn in on the Bible from day 1 the CNN writer missed the intention of our founding fathers.

    By the way, the whole inauguration was infused with echoes of the God of the Bible. Is America really THAT post Christian?

  • Robin

    Since we are talking about a tradition that goes back to colonial times, I suggest you look at the creedal statements of the day to understand why they were performed on scripture. I am not sure about the Anglican tradition, but the Presbyterian and Congregational traditions explicitly forbade the taking of oaths or vows apart from the name of God. (Westminster Confession).

    Taking an oath of office with a hand on the constitution would have been heretical at the time. I haven’t really heard any good theologizing on oaths and vows recently, so I am not sure how the theology has progressed, but I suspect the tradition goes back to creedal statements.

  • Nathan

    Given that the first president to swear on the Bible was Chester Arthur, I don’t think it is necessary. Given that our current president has only expanded the immorality of the previous administrations abuse of power and human rights, it’s incredibly offensive, but not for any of the knee jerk reaction “reasons” that demagogueing evangelicals and secularists would probably offer.

  • http://dereksweatman.tumblr.com Derek Sweatman

    My guess is that it won’t be an issue in the decades to come, which isn’t a bad thing. I don’t know the history of why or how this is done, so I can’t comment on that. And though the sentiment is probably genuine – maybe it really does matter to the president himself? – it isn’t necessary either way. And in the end I would agree that if swearing in were to be an obligation, it would be to primary document of our nation. The Bible is not that, but rather the story of God for the people of all nations, regardless of circumstances, political tension, etc.

  • Drz

    I have understood it to mean that the person recognizes that he/she will be accountable to God for what they are promising to do. It raises the bar of responsibility.

  • RJS

    I find reference to the George Washington Inaugural Bible in many places including here. Given this is there any reason to think that swearing on the bible started with Chester Arthur in 1881? Did the bible serve a different purpose in the first inauguration?

  • Nathan

    Oops, I was thinking of the phrase ” so help me God” added at the end of the oath… My bad.

  • EricW

    My choice:

    Swear on the Constitution and the Flag.

    To uphold and defend them both.

    Say “So help me, God.”

    And then do it.

  • MatthewS

    I appreciate the symbolism of it. When someone says “on my mother’s grave”, we assume that the shared value is that our mom would be the last person on earth we would drag into the mud. A hand on the Bible suggests that there is such a thing as “righteousness” (perhaps someone would use a different word for it) and justice, and that the Bible represents a code to which even the powerful should bow.

    I think of “the king is the state”, not true in the US, thankfully, but in that case, swearing by the state would be perhaps not much different than swearing by the ruler himself. The point of swearing on the Bible suggests a higher moral code, in my mind.

  • Percival

    Jesus’ instructions to not swear (on anything) at all seem to be completely ignored by some of you here. I don’t want to name names.

    I live in an Islamic society where people swear on things all the time AND they lie all the time. I believe there is a connection between the two. An employee of mine explained it like this. “If someone swears “by God”, we don’t take it very seriously. If they swear “by the great God,” they may be telling the truth. In court, the have to swear on the Qur’an or on Mohammad to be considered a legal vow. People also swear by their eyes or by their mother or anything precious.”

    The effect of all this swearing is not to make people more truthful. It has the opposite effect. The truth value of a statement is only of consequence when it is attached to something of greater value than the truth. Also, the valuable thing/name that the vow is attached to is dragged through the mud with each broken oath. Swearing by things in heaven or earth is from the evil one.

  • EricW

    The effect of all this swearing is not to make people more truthful. It has the opposite effect.

    But in court the effect of swearing is to be able to charge someone with perjury, should they commit it in spite of the fact that they have sworn to tell the truth, with resultant monetary fines or jail time, etc. Thus it has a practical effect.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perjury

    Whether a President’s or other officeholder’s oath has any real value other than a symbolic or patriotic or “warm fuzzies” one is debatable.

  • Percival

    EricW,
    American courts do not require that you swear by anything. You just have to promise to tell the truth.

  • EricW

    EricW,
    American courts do not require that you swear by anything. You just have to promise to tell the truth.

    I know, but I consider that to be largely a semantic difference. When one promises something, one in a sense swears by one’s self. And if one lies in court after “promising” to tell the truth, one is still liable to being charged with perjury:

    “Perjury, also known as forswearing, is the willful act of swearing a false oath or of falsifying an affirmation to tell the truth, whether spoken or in writing, concerning matters material to a judicial proceeding. That is, the witness falsely promises to tell the truth about matters which affect the outcome of the case. For example, it is not considered perjury to lie about one’s age unless age is a factor in determining the legal result, such as eligibility for old age retirement benefits.”

    Swear, promise, affirm – it’s pretty much all the same thing.

  • Sonia Maulsby

    I do not approve of the swearing on the Bible. As I firmly believe in the separation of Church and State, I think that the President swearing on the Bible amounts to an attempt at the establishment of Christianity as a religion for the government.


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