There is a common misconception about what kind of book American politicians must be sworn in on when they take their oath of office. The widely held assumption is that the book has to be the Christian Bible.
This is not correct.
In fact, you don’t have to be sworn in on anything at all. There is no constitutional decree for any federal official to swear their oath of office on any one specific text.
Under Article 6, Section 3 of the United States Constitution lies the No Religious Test Clause:
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.
Article 6, Section 3 of the United States Constitution
This lines up with the separation of church and state that the framers of the Constitution advocated for. A swearing-in ceremony is essentially a pact between the lawmaker and the nation they are serving, and their choice of book is meant to represent their own personal values. Because religious freedom was important to the framers and that’s reflected in our Constitution, it was never their intent for any one religious text to be the only “acceptable” text to use — see the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from adopting or establishing an official religion.
It’s common for lawmakers to choose the Christian Bible because many of those lawmakers are Christian and it’s important to them, including George Washington, who set the precedent. But not every lawmaker is Christian, nor do they use the Christian Bible when they’re sworn in.
Here are other books or unique texts that senators, state representatives, and other federal officials have used instead when they were sworn into office. We’ll go in chronological order:
A Book of Law
Sixth president John Quincy Adams chose a book of law called the “Volume of Laws” to be sworn into office with in 1825. He was a firm believer in the separation of church and state, and his choice reflected that belief. Although he was a religious man, he explained his decision in a diary entry: “it was the Constitution he swore to preserve, protect and defend.”
In 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated, and Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest president in the history of the United States at the time when he stepped up to the role. He was hastily sworn in at the home of Ansley Wilcox, brought back to the house from a hike. Since he had no formal clothing with him, he took his oath of office in borrowed clothes, in the library, with no text of any kind.
A Book of Prayers
After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in on Air Force One. They could not locate a Bible, but a missal of Catholic prayers was on board, and so he used that to take his oath.
Keith Ellison became the first Muslim elected to U.S. Congress in 2007 as the representative for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district. He took his oath over the English translated 1764 copy of the Qur’an that had been owned by Thomas Jefferson (which has quite the history), provided by the Library of Congress. Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar also took their oath of office with the Qur’an in 2019 with their own personal copies.
The Bhagavad Gita
In 2013, Tulsi Gabbard became the first Hindu member of Congress as the Hawai’i representative for the state’s 2nd congressional district. She chose her own copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text, to take her oath of office with. Gabbard carried that same copy with her while she served in Iraq, and chose the Gita in part because it inspired her to be a “servant-leader” and dedicate her life to service.
The Constitution on a Kindle
The U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, Suzi LeVine, swore her oath of office on a Kindle in 2018. It was open to the 19th Amendment of the Constitution: women’s right to vote, which was the ideal when it was instituted in 1920 but not practiced in reality until women of color were granted the same right with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. LeVine chose a Kindle to symbolically represent the Constitution applied to the 21st century and the advancement of technology.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mariah Parker was sworn into office on a copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X in 2018. Parker draws great inspiration from Malcolm X and made this choice in part to demonstrate her desire to embody the same qualities and values that he did.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go
In 2019, Kelli Dunaway became a St. Louis county councilwoman, and was sworn into office with a copy of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go. Her two young children held up the book for her while she took her oath of office. Dunaway chose it because it upholds choosing one’s own path, and to emphasize that morality does not have to come from religion.
A Book of Hebrew Scripture
In 2021 Jon Ossof, the first Jewish senator for Georgia, took his oath of office on a book of Hebrew Scripture that had been owned by a rabbi whose synagogue was bombed in the 1950s by white supremacists.
A Superman Comic
Congressman Robert Garcia was sworn in this past January to serve as a California state representative of the 42nd congressional district, and one of the items he chose to swear his oath of office on was a beloved and rare Superman comic. Garcia used comics to learn to read and write in English as a child after he came to the United States from Peru, and he chose Superman because he embodies all of the values that Garcia wishes to uphold — and also happens to be an immigrant.
He borrowed the comic from the Library of Congress for the occasion, and was also sworn in with a copy of the Constitution, his citizenship certificate, and a photograph of his parents, both of whom died of COVID-19 in 2020.
For more politics-related bookish posts, look no further than these posts: