Patricia Nell Warren

Presidential Oaths: Wake-Up Call on the Bible

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | January 24, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: oath of office, Obama's oath of office, swearing on the Bible, U.S. Constitution and Bible

It is amazing how much churchy cacophony deafens the ears of Americans when it comes to the Bible's place in national life. That kerfuffle over the oops on Obama's oath has gone deafening now, with the crazies screaming at the top of their lungs that the map-room swearing-in was not legally valid because Obama didn't swear on a Bible that time.

The Bible has become such a boogey-man at election time that it's high time for the wing-nuts to be gotten crystal clear on this point. The Bible has NO legal weight in the President's oath.

The wing-nuts need to actually read that document called the Constitution that they talk about so much.

What the Constitution Says


The President's oath of office is described in Article II, Section 1:

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--"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."

Notice that the Constitution doesn't mention the Bible. In fact, the Constitution not only avoids any general establishment of religion, but it also shows that its framers were careful to handle the Bible question. Why? Because the practice of oaths of office was imported from England and had a strong religious connotation in the 1700s. The English crown required any inauguree for civil office to take an oath on the Bible. Why? Because England had established the Anglican Church as the law of the land. So officials had to swear on the King James Bible. Why? It was a good way of keeping Catholics and Quakers out of office, since followers of those religions would not swear Protestant Bible oaths as a manner of principle.

But our Constitutional framers realized they couldn't play that Bible game, with the new U.S.A. shaping up as a nation of many beliefs. So they de-religioned the oath entirely. In other words, the oath is 100-percent secular.

Another interesting point that the wing-nuts never mention: the Constitution allows two options for the inauguree: an oath, or an affirmation. According to the Separation of Church and State Home Page: "The words required by the Constitution are described as an "Oath or Affirmation," and that the President is allowed to simply affirm his faithfulness to the Constitution. The word "affirmation" was inserted in this section precisely to allow Presidents to avoid swearing oaths to God as a condition of taking office. This provision seems particularly intended for Quakers (who had religious objections to taking oaths), but it is worded broadly enough to encompass any person who objects to taking an oath, including non-theists."

Supreme Court justice Joseph Story, who wrote our nation's first commentary on the Constitution, stated that the specific provisions for the oath or affirmation "cut off forever every pretense of any alliance between church and state in the national government."

Down through the years, it has become customary for the Bible to be used in the inauguration ceremony. But custom doesn't add up to a legal mandate.

So when the Chief Justice had Obama re-swear in the map room, he knew what he was doing. That's why he didn't run around to find a Bible.

Creative Swearing

Meanwhile, some of the 44 Presidents have found different ways of expressing their religious diversity at inauguration time. And guess what...the sky didn't fall. George Washington, a staunch Freemason, took his oath on a Masonic Bible. His dog-eared copy was traditionally brought out for oaths by many succeeding Presidents. But George W. Bush made a point of not swearing on Washington's Masonic Bible, to satisy his kooky constituents who believe that Freemasonry is evil and satanic. Both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson swore on Catholic Bibles.

The ultimate rebel was Theodore Roosevelt. Though an Episcopalian, he was fiercely dedicated to separation of church and state, so he didn't swear on a Bible at all. Herbert Hoover, a Quaker, opted for an affiirmation rather than an oath. So did Franklin Pierce. John Quincy Adams swore on a book of law, not the Bible. And like I said, the sky didn't fall.

Oath-of-office kerfuffles also explode at state and local levels. Here, both the Muslim Koran and the Jewish Tanakh have been used several times in oaths for senators and governors. Courtrooms are an issue too. Many Americans believe that you have to swear on a Bible when you testify in court. Not so! All you have to do is raise your hand and swear to tell the truth. And the sky doesn't fall.

A gay friend of mine who is disgusted by the ridiculousness of the Obama oath flap tells me that, if he is elected President, he will swear an oath by the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Me, if I were elected President, I would put together a stack of great Western freedom-and-democracy-related documents starting with Plato's Republic, on through the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And I'd opt for an affirmation.

The point is -- the oath's validity, or the affirmation's validity, doesn't come from a bunch of papers. It comes from the elected person's honorable intent to keep a public promise made to millions of Americans.


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Almost by definition any speech that issues forth from the lips of a Godly person is an oath. To swear an oath in the name of God is a false display of piety. The liar will be liable to God, oath or no. So save us the drama please.

Well done Patricia, well done. The 'wing-nuts' you mention are exactly that...NUTS!

In my opinion, Religion just needs to go away. The wing-nuts you speak of have a history of murder, terrorism and hate mongering. What ever happened to just plain old spirituality with an open mind and the common decency towards others? No the wing-nuts you speak of complain simply because they cannot have the right to displace other groups in not thinking like they do. Wouldn't it be interesting to have a President who 'affirms' their oath from a Pagan Bible? Or better yet, our first openly gay President? I long to see that in my lifetime.

We need to go after Christianity with a fierceness of righting wrongs of the 'abominations' they say they live by. We need to go after their 501C3 status on separation of church and state. We need to start taking, and I do repeat, 'taking' or demanding our liberties back.

The wing-nuts need a reality check ... big time!

We need to go after Christianity with a fierceness of righting wrongs of the 'abominations' they say they live by. We need to go after their 501C3 status on separation of church and state. We need to start taking, and I do repeat, 'taking' or demanding our liberties back.

This is a great organizing tool. Sing it from the rafters loud and long. The mid term elections will be here before we know it. This kind of rhetoric is just what we need for a GOP take-over of the House and the Senate.

Patricia's article was well reasoned and well presented. It chides the fools and informs the rest. It threatens no one. Your response on the other hand puts the moderate faithful in the corner. Challenging someone's faith is one thing, threatening to take it away is another. Every time we come off as intolerant as the extreme right, we loose.

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | January 25, 2009 6:56 AM

Precisely how is taking away a tax exemption taking away someone's faith? I'd be willing to settle for a revamp of the tax laws that removes the presumption that churches automatically are conducting tax deductible work with all their funds but neither would reach into someone's mind to rip the faith out.

That's how it would be perceived. Of course in the long run removing the tax exemption would shutter a few smaller churches, but the powerhouses would remain. They would remain with the freedom to enter into electoral politics at will. Be careful what you wish for.

Oh cripes... What happened to the separation of church and state and freedom of religious expression. Aren't both of those part of the consitution? (I'm asking from ignorance as a European!!!)

It seems to me that the Christian fundamentalist right will do anything they can to derail Obama's presidency (Eeek... I'm watching Junior on the TV at the moment and had actually written that as pregnancy!!) and I'm so deeply convinced that this is the biggest threat to Obama's presidency, much more so than external threats.

Did anyone notice the book that Biden used? It was so large we thought it looked less like a Bible than an unabridged dictionary!

Haha that's his family's bible. They've had it since 1893 or something. I think it has a Celtic knot on the cover.

Your 'rhetoric' thinking is what keeps our community in the dark. Wake-up and smell the coffee! Its real simple...its called 'separation of church and state'. The wing-nuts DO need a reality check!

We need another 'Harvey Milk' type person who can organize like Act Up with precision and still stay under the radar of The Patriot Act dogma.

Look at history and what The French Revolution was all about. Look at what Hitler and his 'Christianity' 'rhetoric' thinking was all about.

Christianity, in my mind, equates to murder, terrorism and hate-mongering. What ever happened to Spirituality and common decency? That should be something we should all be able to live with. With Christianity, our community will never have that.

The wing-nuts DO need a reality check!!!

If I ever become the President, I'm going to take the oath with my hand on a stack of original Broadway cast albums. Or maybe just my iPod.

I wonder if the wingnuts would have been satisfied if Obama had been carrying a Kindle or other e-book reader that had the Bible loaded onto it? Is there some special magic created by paper that the sky fairy doesn't recognize in binary code?

Patricia
I love your friend's spagetti monster description. They are just following robotic convention when they drag out "holy books" for oaths that sanctions slavery, stoning two men who lyeth as with a woman (nothing about lesbians in Leviticus but that comes later in Romans), killing children who talk back to their parents, adulterers, and people who work on the sabbath ect. The Lincoln bible is something special because of history but those hateful words as still in there. Bishop Robinson should tear out those pages in the King James version in a gay hissy fit one Sunday morning in front of his congregation (hopefully John Stewart will be there to catch it on film). Those hateful words that should be edited out to reflect todays civilized society and scientific truths. Also "So help me god" is not in the oath written in the Constitution, but Chief Justice Roberts blurted it out and President Obama followed. Why say them if they are not in the oath outlined in the Constitution. The "first woman" pastor to give prayers at the National Cathedral that looked more like a speech with arms waving similar to Leonard Bernstein the conductor, I am not even going to comment.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | January 25, 2009 3:34 AM

We should also add the biblical prohibition against wearing clothes made from two types of thread. There goes the elastic in my underwear!

I think we should have presidents swear to Mildred Pearce's work ethic!, or P.N Warren for that matter.

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | January 25, 2009 7:26 AM

Thanks for the shout-out to His Noodliness, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Those wishing to know more about Pastafarianism may find information, including depictions of the The Noodly Appendage, the full pirate regalia His priests and other religious and Intelligent Design Science instructors must wear when teaching the Pastafarian beliefs, etc., should seek first here: http://www.venganza.org/

I pronounce anathema on your heretical Pastafarian nonsense.

I am a Blue Moon Boy. I wear the Blue Suede Shoes of an Elvite 3rd class. I get so shook up contemplating the hypnotic gyrations of The One True Pelvis of The One True Elvis that I shake, rattle and roll at Graceland Temple. I know that my One True Elvis loves me tender and won’t be cruel.

All you get is marinara on the side.

John R. Selig | January 25, 2009 1:32 PM

Our country technically believes in separation of church and state but in practice the Christian religion keeps rearing its head at government functions. I find an invocation at an inauguration out of place, especially one that mentions Jesus. Not all Americans are Christians. I am a non-secular Jew (I honor my heritage but am an atheist) and a strong supporter of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I am offended that our currency now says "In God We Trust" though I loved famed satirist Jean Sheperd's book published in 1966, "In Good We Trust All Others Pay Cash."

I dislike our pledge iof allegiance including "One nation under God." Imagine the furor one would cause if they were to say "One nation over Satan!" I don't believe in God and I don't believe in Satan either. But let's face it, if God is in heaven and Satan is in hell then the U.S. would be just as much one nation over Satan as one nation under God.

As distasteful as Christian's would feel at hearing the words "One nation over Satan," many of us feel about having God and Jesus drug into our daily public lives.

Mind you, I totally believe in each individual being able to worship whatever floats their boat and practice whatever religion they chose. But that right doesn't transcend into forcing me to endure public displays of those beliefs at government functions (be it an inauguration, school assembly, city council meeting, etc.).

As to tax status, religious organizations are by law required to stay out of politics. When a church publicly takes a stand in an election, they should lose their tax-free status. The Mormons in the case of Prop 8 are an excellent example of this practice. So are many church's who hand out voting guides to their members.

Again, I am not attacking anybody's right to believe what they want. But, please have the decency not to force it on me.

No doubt, some will try and equate my comments with those of people who are offended to see LGBT folks in the media and in public demanding rights. Sorry, there is a huge difference. People of all faiths (or no faiths) deserve equal rights. If their rights were curtailed I would be with them demanding equal rights.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | January 27, 2009 6:59 AM

John, it is not like the German phrase during WW I

"Got es mit uns!"

That justifies a lot of mistreatment of others.

America was founded by various religious groups coming into accord on those few things they could agree about. We were just one vote from speaking German as the official language you know.

Every correct thing you mention as "shoulds" have a lobby lined up and an interest group with deep pockets to protect their privilege. Reality is so damn inconvenient. Much work remains to be done.

Elvis Bless You.

Here, here John.

Like in Patricia's article...the fear that the wing-nuts should be worried about is loosing their tax-free status...AND we should go after them who break the law.

Look at what Christians tout...they tortured AND murdered Jesus. That should tell you something of their rhetoric. I rest my case in seeing their theology as murderous and torturous!

Like you, I am not chastising anyone who wants to believe in what they want to believe in...just don't force it down my throat. I can think of better things to have shoved down my throat, thank you very much!.

I too am offended that 'In God We Trust' is on our money...I too am offended that the Pledge of Allegiance has 'under God' in it. Keep your God and your religion to yourself...don't force it upon me.

I defend and predict that the next war we engage in, demand our equal rights and 'threaten to take away the wing-nuts tax free status away from them'. That will give 'them' their wake-up call.

Gay's need to unite or sit in their depravity of 'baby steps' and shut up when our rights dwindle away from us. Grow some balls why don't you.

It's very clear that the law is being broken...I say take away the IRS exemption from the wing-nuts.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | January 28, 2009 8:29 AM

There are so many. Sooo many things to get to before this.

These rumors are absolutely insane. I wouldn't be surprised if this stuff was also coming from the birthers, those people who don't think Obama was born in the US.

And these people wonder why they lost the last election. We need to continue to exploit their crazy.

schon schon | February 1, 2009 3:39 PM

Your comment is interesting,obviously you never read the Magna Carta,Benjamin Franklin opinions ,George Washingons farewell address ,much less his beliefs in GOD in the affairs of our Nation.Many people don't have an honest clue to what the Framers thought about GOD in the affairs of man in America,they don't read and then they read opinions such as yours.Your spirituality ,as you call it,sounds at the least mean spirited,but trust me I consider the source,nuff said,enjoy the Obama show!By the way,He is the first President in modern history and first black President to not take his oath on the Bible,legal oath that is,hmmm,makes you wonder about that stumble,huh,and then makes you wonder about all that baggage he carried into the Presidency,his friend the terrorist,Michelles opininon about her nation,reverande wrights views,took 20 years to wake on that one didn't it Obama,guess it was the image of a fading White House,his suppoters who didn't want the GOD issue,his supporters disagreements with the Minister,too GODLY huh?Hmmm,it's going to get interesting!!!!!

Well, Schon Schon, obviously you have never read the Constitution, which is what determines the legality of the President's oath. The Constitution says nothing about the Bible.

And you're wrong about which President was the first to not take the oath on the Bible. John Adams was the first. An F in history homework for you.

schon schon | February 1, 2009 3:40 PM

Your comment is interesting,obviously you never read the Magna Carta,Benjamin Franklin opinions ,George Washingons farewell address ,much less his beliefs in GOD in the affairs of our Nation.Many people don't have an honest clue to what the Framers thought about GOD in the affairs of man in America,they don't read and then they read opinions such as yours.Your spirituality ,as you call it,sounds at the least mean spirited,but trust me I consider the source,nuff said,enjoy the Obama show!By the way,He is the first President in modern history and first black President to not take his oath on the Bible,legal oath that is,hmmm,makes you wonder about that stumble,huh,and then makes you wonder about all that baggage he carried into the Presidency,his friend the terrorist,Michelles opininon about her nation,reverande wrights views,took 20 years to wake on that one didn't it Obama,guess it was the image of a fading White House,his suppoters who didn't want the GOD issue,his supporters disagreements with the Minister,too GODLY huh?Hmmm,it's going to get interesting!!!!!

Schon schon, go back to your Bible thumping masturbation of rhetoric or better yet, go play with your Bible while spinning vomit or feces on it for me will ya.