Editor's note: This article is part of a series answering your biggest religious questions. Each week, we will answer one submitted faith question. To send a submission, visit timesfreepress.com/religionquestions or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Question: Why do politicians take the oath of office on a religious book? Shouldn't it be on something like the U.S. Constitution?
In one word, tradition.
The U.S. Constitution provides very little direction for the oath of office ceremony for elected officials. States can create their own rules, but the directive to the president is outlined in Article II of the Constitution. The oath the president must recite reads, "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."
That is all the directive that is given for the oath of office ceremony. Everything else that has been used in the dozens of presidential ceremonies leans on precedent, said Rob Boston, senior adviser at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"The whole practice is shrouded in a lot of tradition," he said. " Tradition holds that the Bible be used, but there is no requirement."
People typically choose something that is meaningful to them, Boston said. Since the largest religion in America is a form of Christianity, it makes sense the Bible would be widely used. The focus should be on upholding the values of the Constitution. The book that is used as part of that ceremony is less important, he said.
President John Quincy Adams chose to place his hand on a law book during his 1825 inauguration. In 2006, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., became the first Muslim member of Congress and chose to be sworn in using a Quran. This year, St. Louis County Council member Kelli Dunaway was sworn in with her hand on the Dr. Seuss book "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"
The tradition of using a Bible during the oath may not have been so if not for George Washington's last-minute request during his 1789 inauguration. He requested a Bible for the ceremony, and since none were nearby someone borrowed the book from a local masonic lodge. The same Bible has been used by several presidents since, including Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.
Since using a Bible or any specific religious text is not required during the oath of office ceremony, the use of the Bible by some presidents does not raise any First Amendment issues, Boston said.
"People should be engaging in a way that's meaningful for them," he said.
From the reporter
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