Why Presidents Swear on the Bible

Not all presidents swear on a Bible. Perhaps one day some will swear over Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel 'Dune.'

Why Presidents Swear on the Bible

Symbolism is not always what it seems. Presidents swear on a Bible. “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.” Do they actually believe in the deity whose purported book, religion, and ideals are sworn over and, by definition, are therefore the judge of their success? Are all our presidents, according to accepted scientific belief, swearing over a book that may have no more truth in it than Lord of the Rings. Did Eve talk to snakes? Did Frodo talk to a dragon? In an age of deteriorating numbers of true believers, and a resurgence of science as the authority, why do the leaders of our country swear over what half the country believes is a book written by men in their pursuit of organized and institutional religion. Where is the separation of church and state, when the first act as president is religiously symbolic? Maybe they should swear over Frank Herbert’s Dune or George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Or perhaps the best idea would be to swear over the constitution. God should have very little to do with it, irrespective of traditions. The perception that it is a requirement is wrong. There have been notable presidents who have not sworn over a religious book. Irrespective of their religious beliefs, they did not confuse their duties to America with God.

While reciting this oath, presidents are required to place their hand on the Bible due largely in part to a long line of tradition. Our first president, George Washington, placed his hand on the Bible while taking the oath of office and it is believed that most of his successors kept the tradition. During his time in office, George Washington established precedents like the Cabinet within the Executive Branch by appointing Thomas Jefferson Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton Secretary of Treasury, a body that was not outlined within the Constitution. Another precedent was the maximum of two terms for each president—these were termed "Washington precedents." While there are a few more precedents and long-standing traditions that have been reinforced throughout the centuries, swearing in on the Bible is one of the most iconic. But have all presidents followed suit, and sworn on the Bible?

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Is it the Law?

Although it is tradition, nothing legally requires a president to swear their oath on the Bible. In fact, John Quincy Adams didn’t swear the oath on the Bible at all. Instead, he took his oath in a way that many would consider to be much more powerful than using the Bible. He placed his hand on a book of US laws to represent his promise to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” After President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt didn’t use the Bible or any other prop when being sworn in. In Dallas, on Air Force One, there was no Bible, so stewards found a Catholic missal belonging to the slain President Kennedy, and that’s how the 36th President was sworn in. Although there have been a few cases where Bibles weren't used during the swearing into office process, swearing the oath isn’t a requirement either. Presidents can either say, “I do solemnly swear” or “I do solemnly affirm.” Only one President has affirmed the oath rather than swearing it which was Franklin Pierce in 1853, because of his own religious reasons. When Bibles are used—presidents usually choose which Bible they would like to use and whether or not the Bible is open or closed while taking the oath. Many presidents choose to open the Bible and rest their hand on a specific scriptural passage and no two presidents have ever used the same passage.

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The More Bibles, the Merrier

In some cases, presidents have used two Bibles during their swearing in. For example, in 1989, George H.W. Bush took the oath of office with an open Bush family Bible resting on top of George Washington’s Masonic Bible, which had been opened to a random passage. George H.W. Bush’s inauguration was the 200th anniversary of Washington’s first inauguration in 1789, and he also had his Bible (the same one Bush used in 1989) opened to a random passage. Bush’s son, George W. Bush, used the Bush family Bible at both of his inaugurations (closed in 2001 and open in 2005). Incidentally, George W. Bush wanted to use the Masonic Bible belonging to George Washington at his first inauguration, just as his father had in 1989, but although it had been brought to Washington, D.C. from its home in New York City, poor weather at the 2001 Inauguration resulted in the first George Washington’s Bible steering clear of the elements. The Library of Congress maintains a list of the specific Bibles used at each Presidential Inauguration, as well as the scriptural passages that the Presidents placed their hand upon when taking the oath of office.

Although placing a hand on a Bible while reciting the Presidential Oath was simply a tradition started by George Washington, two presidents—Teddy Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams did not use a Bible at their swearing-in ceremonies. Though Roosevelt's reasons were unclear, John Quincy Adams' reasons could not be more obvious. Adams, the son of President John Adams, was a religious man. But he chose to be sworn in with his hand on a book of US laws. He wanted to demonstrate that he recognized a barrier between church and state and that his loyalty was to our nation's laws above all else. Adams also refused to campaign for the presidency because he believed it was beneath the dignity of the office to make promises that might not have been able to be kept. Clearly, Adams was not a man who acted because of tradition alone. He had to truly believe in what he did.

Bibles Don’t Bind Presidents

Some argue that swearing on the Bible makes sure the president stays true to his oath. But we have already undoubtedly seen presidents and other elected officials swear to uphold the laws of our country with their hands on a Bible and go on to break many laws and ethical rules. It essentially comes down to the person's moral code, and not a 30-second oath. The Founding Fathers made it clear that the U.S. Constitution, "...shall be the supreme law of the land." It is the living legacy they bestowed upon us. It is the framework for our government. And as such, that's probably the document our president should place his hand on. When it comes to the fact that all presidents have sworn on the bible, the conclusion is fiction, as may be the book that so many swer on.

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Joshua Samuel Zook

Grew up in a religious household. Listened to countless sermons on the wrath of God. An epiphany struck him and he realized no one is that angry, not even God.

See all posts by Joshua Samuel Zook