I swear, it’s really much ado about nothing
Sometimes in the world of journalism, the story becomes more about the reaction than the original news event. By my estimation, that’s what’s going on right with Franklin Mayor Bob Scott and his decision to put his hand on the Constitution instead of the Bible when getting sworn in for his second term.
Scott is one of those small-town politicians who seems to come to public service naturally. He is a former alderman, has led the local chamber of commerce and the Rotary Club. He’s been a journalist and a public affairs officer who believes passionately in open government. He’s retired, but from what I’ve seen he works nearly all the time as chief cheerleader and advocate for his adopted hometown.
He also has a bit of an edge, a trait inspired by an intellectual curiosity that is maybe even more rare in local politics than his dedication to Franklin.
When I interviewed him in 2013 during his first run for mayor, he acknowledged that he would not try to be the leader people expected him to be, but rather would willingly go out on the skinny branches.
“Sometimes, leaders find they have to be out there all alone,” he said two years ago.
And now Scott finds himself, if not alone, at least in the crosshairs of those who always seem to be looking for a boogie man. All because he decided to swear that he would uphold the laws of the Constitution by putting his hand on that document rather than a Bible, and he chose not to end his oath with the traditional “So help me God.”
“(It) makes more sense to be sworn in on the document that you are upholding and is the law of the land. I have absolutely no problem with anyone being sworn in on a Bible, the Koran, or any other religious document. That is their choice,” Scott told The Smoky Mountain News’ Jessi Stone. “I just decided to choose the Constitution because that was the most applicable document dealing with government and governance of the people.”
And he’s in good company by choosing something other than the Bible. John Quincy Adams was sworn in as the sixth president by placing his hand on a law book. He got away with it because the Constitution says nothing about Bibles being used when taking oaths of office, and because the tradition of doing so had not yet been firmly established. That was about 200 years ago.
“It just felt right to me and it had nothing to do with my belief system. It was simply that I felt my personal belief system, religion or partisan politics, should not be a major factor in governance,” Scott said. “Our government should not favor one group of people over another and that is what you do when you allow religion into government.”
And that’s the issue. Scott didn’t denigrate anyone by his method of taking office. In fact, his actions and his comments since show a high regard for the beliefs and feelings of others. He said as much, telling us that people have a right to judge and criticize his decision and vote accordingly.
Some of his detractors, though, have acted as though his chosen oath make him evil or incapable of holding public office. That’s a dangerous precedent, to believe that if someone does not embrace your religious beliefs or is of your own religion but does not practice it the same way that they are somehow less of a person, perhaps even bad evil. That belief, sadly, is a wellspring from where many bad things bubbles forth, from bigotry and hypocrisy to downright hatred and violence. That’s not somewhere we want to go.
This is, after all, a mere small-town swearing in ceremony. Scott doesn’t control an army or have his finger on the button. Even if he did, swearing to uphold the Constitution doesn’t need any symbolic validity by doing so with a Bible. In my experience, I’ve never noticed a marked difference in the ethhical behavior of those who profess to be religious versus those who aren’t openly religious.
Those chucking obscenities and political threats at Scott should just back off and see this for what it is: much ado about nothing.