What's the big deal about being sworn in on a Bible?

The use of the Bible in a public swearing-in ceremony has excited passions on the left and right. Thoughtful contemplation would be better. Photo: President Obama being sworn in with the Lincoln Bible (2009)

FLORIDA, January 19, 2013 — Inauguration day is almost here, and in the overwrought climate of American politics, there is inevitable controversy.

But for once, the controversy has almost nothing to do with President Obama.

The argument now is whether presidents should continue to be sworn into office with one hand on a Bible (or three, as will be used this inauguration), or whether they should abandon the use of any religion’s holy book in favor of something more inclusive.

From the left, activists believe that inclusion of a religious text in a public ceremony disenfranchises secular Americans. From their perspective, religious Americans in general, and Christians in particular, are given special preference.

From the right we hear that using a Bible on Inauguration day is integral to America’s character as a Judeo-Christian nation. To forsake this tradition would be a sign of moral weakness and spiritual impoverishment.

Some would claim anti-religious bigotry if tradition were cast aside.

The choice of texts on which to swear the oath of office is a deeply personal matter. It should depend on the values the president-elect espouses and the signal that he or she wishes to send to America about those values. Aside from the symbolism, what anyone else thinks is unimportant.

Obama was elected, beliefs and all, and his decision to be sworn in on a Bible is between him and his God.

Snide remarks or crude generalizations about his use of the Bible are designed to create rancor and resentment, not to encourage meaningful discussion. It would be much better to embrace reason.

People today are not inclined to be reasonable, especially about politics and religion. Generosity and reason might help us solve our problems and conflicts, but it rarely seems that anyone wants solutions. We prefer to nurse our grievances, feed our martyr complexes, and fuel our anger.

We are all individuals who think differently and see the world in different ways. The Constitution protects our right not to have other people’s beliefs forced upon us, but it doesn’t grant us the right not to be exposed to them. 

Perhaps then we should focus on our own lives and behavior, and not worry about whether someone swearing an oath is doing it in deference to a deity we consider imaginary. If you don’t want the Bible to be used to swear in a president, win the office yourself and be sworn in on “The Wealth of Nations,” the Quran, or even the Constitution if you like. We should leave each other to make those decisions for ourselves. Is minding our own business really a lost art?

The bottom line is that if the president-elect is a serious, born-again Christian, he or she will be sworn in on a Bible. If the president-elect is a disciple of Christopher Hitchens or Ayn Rand, a copy of the U.S. Constitution will probably suffice.

The former will swear, “So help me God”; the latter will make a “solemn affirmation.”

It is taking the oath with profound, honest and serious intent that matters. If the moral compass is sure and true, does it matter whether one person swears, “So help me God…” while another says something else? If the heart is false, will the hand on the Bible be anything but a rank hypocrisy?

It isn’t the words in the document on which the hand rests that matter, but the words inscribed in the heart.

On that much we should all agree.      


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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