Swear on the Bible?

matthew's picture

From Townhall.com:

Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress, has announced that he will not take his oath of office on the Bible, but on the bible of Islam, the Koran.

He should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization.

Substantive points from Dennis Prager's Op-Ed piece:

...only imagine a racist elected to Congress. Would they allow him to choose Hitler's "Mein Kampf," the Nazis' bible, for his oath? And if not, why not? On what grounds will those defending Ellison's right to choose his favorite book deny that same right to a racist who is elected to public office?

...for all of American history, Jews elected to public office have taken their oath on the Bible, even though they do not believe in the New Testament, and the many secular elected officials have not believed in the Old Testament either...Nor has one Mormon official demanded to put his hand on the Book of Mormon.

... When all elected officials take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization. If Keith Ellison is allowed to change that, he will be doing more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.

That last bit, to me, seems over-the-top and clearly a slippery-slope fallacy and glittering generality. But at the same time, he does have a point: commonly swearing on the same document has a unifying effect in the US Congress. Or does it?

My personal preference would be for those sworn in to swear upon the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, seeing how widespread the abuse of that document has been under the current regime (warrant-less wiretaps, incarceration of American citizens without due process, deportation of American citizens to foreign countries for cruel and unusual punishment, etc.), I don't know if that would do any good.

What do you think? Is this a violation of an honored tradition? Is the precedent of Jewish (the USA has the largest Jewish population on the planet) and nonreligious Congressmen swearing upon the Bible for generations enough call for it to continue in all cases? Or is Keith Ellison establishing a valuable new precedent?


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Ben's picture


Of course, saying that one Congressman swearing on a Koran does more damage than the terrorists on 9/11 is beyond stupid, and immediately invalidates his entire position.

Additionally, calling Mein Kampf the Nazi Bible is equally stupid. Hitler and his followers were good Protestants who would have had no problem swearing on a Bible.

That said, I'm all in favor of commonality in theory. I don't agree with swearing on the Constitution, however, as it raises a living, working document to the level of a religious text, which it is not.

When I became a Freemason, I took an oath over a Bible. (There was also a Torah and a Koran placed on the altar.) It was explained that on a Masonic altar, the Bible is a symbolic representation for an individual's covenant with his Creator, and not a representation for a particular set of religious principles. Therefore, it didn't bother me.

Ellison, however, should not be required to swear on any book upon which he does not feel comfortable swearing. Most Congressmen, presumably, don't see the Bible as symbolic of anything but itself.

OK, I guess I'm rambling without direction. I'll think about this.



daniel's picture

It's the thought that counts

I'm not sure why the Bible is so important here. Does it have to be the King James? NIV? New Jerusalem?

The point, as I see it, is to take the oath a level beyond a mere exchange of words. By placing one's hand on the Bible, one symbolizes an oath before God, even though such oath-taking is forbidden in the same. If the Bible is worthless to you, placing your hand on it is meaningless.

Thus, Muslims ought to swear on the Koran, and Mormons ought to swear on the latest April or October church magazine. Atheists? Well, no one wants to vote for them anyway...

matthew's picture


Well, it just turns out this op-ed writer doesn't know what he is talking about. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, clause 3 reads:

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; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

Several U.S. Presidents, many Jews, and all Quakers who have served in Congress have "affirmed", rather than sworn. Herbert Hoover affirmed rather than swore, as he was a Quaker and that religion prohibits swearing oaths. The phrase "so help me God" is a 20th-century convention, and nothing more.

So it seems that you could choose to swear on anything you like, or affirm without swearing upon anything at all. The only court which will worry about that is the court of public opinion.

Matthew P. Barnson

Matthew P. Barnson

matthew's picture

Eugene Volokh

Eugene Volokh wrote an insightful article addressing this issue yesterday. Here's an excerpt:

This argument both mistakes the purpose of the oath, and misunderstands the Constitution. In fact, it calls for the violation of some of the Constitution’s multiculturalist provisions.

...the Constitution itself expressly recognizes the oath as a religious act that some may have religious compunctions about performing. The religious-test clause is actually part of a longer sentence: “The Senators and Representatives ... [and other state and federal officials] shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required ....” The option of giving an affirmation rather than oath reflects the judgment — an early multiculturalist judgment — in favor of accommodating members of some denominations (such as Quakers) who read the Bible as generally prohibiting the swearing of oaths.

...The Supreme Court has long taken the view that the establishment clause and the free-exercise clause generally mandate equal treatment of people without regard to their religions; conservative justices, such as Scalia and Thomas, have agreed. Letting Christians swear the oath of office, while allowing members of other denominations only to swear what ends up being a mockery of an oath — a religious ceremony appealing to a religious belief system that they do not share — would be such discrimination.

...Linda Lingle, the Governor of Hawaii, was sworn in on the Tanakh (more or less the Old Testament); for the reasons I just mentioned, others would have been free to do the same, or to affirm if they preferred.

...We ought not blindly accept the legitimacy of other cultures’ beliefs. But the Constitution says that we can’t demand complete surrender to our majority culture — especially its religious beliefs — either in “personal life” or in public life."

Matthew P. Barnson

Matthew P. Barnson

weed's picture

Eye of The Oath-Taker

It seems to me the idea of making an oath is to agree to perform certain duties. I would also argue that putting a Bible into the mix offers the notion that breaking the oath will bring the ire of the power associated with the Bible. In other words, you swear on the Bible to uphold the oath and you break it, then God will punish you.

Which is funny, because the Bible says you should use God's name in such a way, and the Constitution says you shouldn't use the Bible in such a way. But who cares what those two documents actually SAY, it's what the misguided public THINKS they say that is important. Because it's all about staying in office, baybeeeeeeeeee! (College basketball is back, and that means seeing (which is bad) and hearing (which is much, much worse) Dickie V on ESPN every other night.)

I personally like the idea of swearing in on the Constitution. I don't believe, as Ben says, that it elevates the Constitution to the level of a religious text as much as puts the emphasis on upholding the Constitution. There's a big difference between running the country according to the text of the Constitution and running the country according to the text of the Bible/Koran/Mein Kamp/Goodnight Moon.

My personal opinion is to run your life by the Bible/Koran/Goodnight Moon and run the country according to the Constitution, and the government's job is to make the conflicts between the two as minimal as possible.

My $.02

My $.02

I think...

I think this just goes to show that any monkey with a keyboard can write an op-ed piece. (Myself included)


I'm from africa living in france.
I would like to know if that muslim senator took the oath on the koran or on the bible? Please let me know .
I think that american people should not allow that because nobody can do that in a muslim country; I mean no one from other religion can do such thing in a muslim country. If you allowed that, It will be an opened door for many other things else. They must respect ur civilisation, ur rules like we respect their civilisation when we are in their country.

Sorry for my english, it's my second language.

matthew's picture

Oath of office

He has not yet taken his oath of office, but has announced he will do so on the Koran. What he has said he will do, in the USA, is perfectly legal as we allow both an oath on the Bible or an oath of affirmation using any document or no document at all. In some other countries -- including Moslem ones -- there is a state-sponsored religion, and promotion of other religions is illegal.

Freedom of religion and expression are two main reasons why I enjoy living in the US.

The principal controversy is that he is the first to ever use a Koran in US history. The only reason I think this is controversial at all is because of the current conflicts in which the US is engaged in the Middle East. Were it not such a hot topic, this would have been an article in section D, page 6 in the Washington Post.

Matthew P. Barnson

Matthew P. Barnson