Judging from the photographs taken on Inauguration Day, the Bible in Jill Biden’s hands for the swearing-in ceremony must have been at least 10 pounds. With a five-inch thick binding and metal clasps to hold the pages together, that was one big Bible. The president evidently chose that particular book because it’s been in his family for 127 years. So, we may ask: Does it matter what Bible one chooses when being sworn into public office? Are there any requirements for the book used when taking the oath?
The U.S. Constitution makes no requirement that any federal official has to use a Bible, much less a written text at all. Technically, an incoming officeholder could use a copy of Charlotte’s Web or even a box of truffles. It’s basically up to the individual to decide what object – usually a written text – allows for the best expression of their personal values. Or, sometimes, it may be a decision involving what’s closest at hand.
In 1825, when John Quincy Adams took the oath of office, he chose to lay his hand on a law book. In 1901, following the chaos of President William McKinley’s assassination, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was hastily sworn in with no book at all. When Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One in 1963, just two hours and eight minutes after President Kennedy’s assassination, no Bible was in range. Someone grabbed a Catholic missal (the liturgical book for Catholic mass) that was in Kennedy’s working desk on the plane. On that, LBJ laid his left hand.
Keith Ellison was America’s first Muslim congressman and, in 2007 at his swearing-in, used Thomas Jefferson’s original copy of the Koran in English. When Barack Obama took his oath, Michelle Obama held two Bibles – one the Bible of Abraham Lincoln and the other one once having belonged to Martin Luther King Jr. Donald Trump also used two Bibles, one of which was the Lincoln Bible kept inside a protective box on his inaugural day. Senator Krysten Sinema, the only current U.S. senator to list herself as “religiously unaffiliated,” took her oath on the Constitution. Suzi LeVine made news in 2014 when she assumed the ambassadorship to Switzerland and Liechtenstein by taking her oath of office on a Kindle or e-reader, open to the Nineteenth Amendment. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, the first Hindu in Congress, took her oath on the Bhagavad Gita.
In the Middle Ages, English courts adopted a practice of using a book, typically a Bible, for the oath-taker to place his hand, speak the oath, and then kiss the book. In time, this oath-taking in the legal system came to adopt a practice where witnesses swore “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” While most American oath-takers conclude their acceptance of office with the words “so help me God,” the Constitution allows the option of making an affirmation instead of an oath. An affirmation permits one to omit reference to God, if that be the preference, and to allow one to say “I affirm,” rather than “I swear.”