Swearing to God still carries political weight

fr mottoPublic officials aren’t required to place their hand on a Bible to be sworn into office, but a majority of them still do.

Some elected officials even bring their own treasured Bible to be sworn into office. It’s a time-honored tradition that continues to be perpetuated even though it’s purely ceremonial. Using a Bible to take an oath of office doesn’t have any legal meaning, but it does have a personal meaning for Christians who believe swearing to God is the highest form of obligation. 

Even if the act of swearing on a Bible doesn’t fit into someone’s personal religious beliefs, many public officials choose to follow through with the traditional oath of office anyway because that’s what people have always done. They may also take part in the ritual simply because they don’t want their religious beliefs to be called into question. 

The few who have tried to move away from the tradition of swearing on a Bible have often been met with criticism from Christian constituents, including Franklin Mayor Bob Scott and Burlington Mayor Ian Baltutis. 

Being a strong supporter of freedom of religion and separation of church and state, Scott thought it would be more appropriate to swear to uphold the Constitution with his hand on the Constitution. Even though he feels like he had honorable intentions, he’s dealt with the aftermath of doubt from the religious community. 

Baltutis experienced the same kind of backlash this month when he didn’t use a Bible for his swearing in and the wording “so help me God” was removed from the oath of office.

The reality is that a majority of North Carolina residents are still conservative, church-going folks who want their leaders to hold the same beliefs they do, which could explain why there are no open “non-believers” currently serving in Congress. 

In his online commentary, Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said Baltutis’ oath had little meaning because he appeals to no one higher than himself.

“Unfortunately, Baltuis (sic) represents, I believe, a new generation of leadership that is out of step with the city he serves, out of step with the state’s Preamble to its Constitution, and out of step with America’s religious moorings,” Creech said. “… Contrary to the assumptions of the proud, we still need God and the Holy Scriptures. What is more, it is unto God that we shall give an account. God judges men, some now and some after death. But our Maker always judges nations in this life.”

Ralph Hamlett, a political science professor at Brevard College and a Canton alderman, said taking an oath of office using a Bible is a tradition many public officials aren’t willing to buck because it could cost them political capital. 

“One reason is probably the fear that some politicians might have for violating that tradition. The violation might be perceived as — what seems to be occurring in Franklin — an affront to U.S. religion mores and practices,” Hamlett said. “As such, the fear is that the politician who refuses to use the Bible might suffer in the next election.”

Losing constituent support is exactly what Scott is afraid has happened in the weeks following his swearing-in ceremony. Thus far he has been a popular leader. He served on the board of aldermen for 10 years, won his race for mayor in a landslide and was re-elected for a second term without opposition. But in the last couple of weeks he’s received hate mail and has been blasted by Christian commentators.  

“I am pretty sure I have lost some support, but I am not running for another office or even a higher office. So, I just have to let the criticism roll off and realize that people have a right to judge or cuss me and vote accordingly,” Scott said. “And, the Constitution gives them that right, to criticize public officials, without a fear of government retribution. That’s the beauty of our Constitution.”


History of the oath

Contrary to popular belief, Hamlett said, the Constitution doesn’t contain any language requiring public officials to swear on any kind of religious text when taking the oath of office. Sixth President John Quincy Adams actually placed his hand on a law book when he took his oath of office.

The only mention in the Constitution about the oath of office for the president-elect is in regards to the language of the 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.”

But throughout the years, the presidential oath of office has become more elaborate and the tradition has extended to other federal offices, state offices and even small town governing boards. But that is all it is — tradition, not a requirement. 

Even at the federal level today, members of Congress are sworn into office en masse without the use of any book. The Bible or other books of faith or documents are often used later in re-enactment photos for the press. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison used the Quran for his swearing in re-enactment photo in 2006. Representing Minnesota, he was the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, which also caused controversy.  

If using a Bible were required by law during a swearing-in ceremony, Hamlett said, it would be a violation of the Constitution. Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution states that officials shall be bound to support the Constitution but that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to run for any public office. 

“The oath of office for municipal election does not have a requirement that the oath be given with the left hand placed on any document,” Hamlett said. “Doing so would defacto require the office holder to show a willingness to pledge on the Bible — a test.”

The ACLU of North Carolina has been following this issue as well since Scott’s and Baltutis’ swearing-in ceremonies made the news. ACLU’s Legal Director Chris Brook agrees that requiring a public official to swear on the Bible would be a violation. 

“The freedom of religion is one of our country’s most cherished values, and the Constitution says clearly that there can’t be a religious test for holding public office,” Brook said. “State law allows officials to either swear or affirm their oath of office, but requiring them to do so on a specific religious text would violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.”

Hamlett said the wording “So help me God” — a phrase typically inserted at the end of many oaths of office — is just another ritual of sorts. The courts have defined “So help me God” as form of ceremonial deism, which means it’s technically a religious statement but it’s deemed to merely be ritualistic and non-religious through long customary usage. Again, public officials aren’t required to use it because mandating it would make it another type of religious test. 

Swearing on the Bible may be a tradition, but Scott has never been one to let the past guide the future of Franklin. Shortly after being sworn into his second term as mayor, Scott encouraged his board to always look for new and innovative ideas to lead the town.  

“The attitudes I expect to never hear expressed are ‘we ain’t never done it that way before,’ or ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’ or ‘we have always done it this way.’ I want to make sure that everyone on this board is always free to say ‘let’s try it,’ or ‘here’s a new way to think or do something,’” he said. 

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