As legislative ranks become more diverse, so do the books and words used to affirm duty to office
Michelle Obama holds Abraham Lincoln's Bible for her husband as he takes the oath of office of president, administered by Chief Justice John Roberts on Jan. 20, 2009.
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When the new crop of freshman lawmakers take their oaths for the 113th U.S. Congress this January, expect a few history-making moments.
Tulsi Gabbard will become the first Hindu to serve in the House of Representatives (and she is also the first member of Congress born in American Samoa). Ms. Gabbard, a Democrat and decorated combat veteran from Hawaii's 2nd Congressional District, plans to take the oath of office with the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture.
Fellow Hawaiian Democrat Mazie Hirono, who became one of the two first simultaneously elected Buddhist Congress members in 2007, will chart new ground as the country's first Buddhist U.S. senator. (Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga, a Soka Gakkai Buddhist, was the other).
Ms. Hirono is also the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate and the first U.S. senator born in Japan.
These landmarks for inclusivity have revived the centuries-old debate among assorted Christians, humanists, Constitution buffs and others regarding religious tolerance and the First Amendment: What is the proper decorum? What does the Constitution actually require lawmakers to promise and to whom?
And where did these oaths get started, anyway? (It might have been in ancient Egypt, whose leaders held an onion, symbol of eternity, while taking oath.)
These matters of religion and oaths were, of course, significant to the country's European founders, who descended from settlers who had fled religious intolerance abroad.
While some states established Christianity as the official religion in their constitutions, at the federal level there was "no requirement to affirm that you believed in the divinity of Christ or to affirm that you believed in God," according to historian Michael Feldberg, executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom in New York City.
The oath of office was intended as a sort of pledge of allegiance to uphold the Constitution, Mr. Feldberg said. Oaths of office were meant to be personal, public affirmations "of your commitment to subordinate your personal interest to the service of your country and the rule of law," he said.
"However, you can easily see why people conflate it together with religion, because it is a solemn oath to something that is beyond your personal existence," he said.
The U.S. Constitution does not dictate a specific oath for any officeholder other than the president. The wording lawmakers have used for oaths has evolved over the centuries.
The "so help me God" phrasing dates back to court requirements from 1789, although the law says these words "shall be omitted in all cases where an affirmation is admitted instead of an oath."
Mr. Feldberg notes that Article Six of the Constitution requires that members of the House and Senate, state legislatures, and executive and judicial officers of the United 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."
Theodore Roosevelt is said to have replaced "so help me God" with "and thus I swear." Franklin Pierce, an Episcopalian, opted to "affirm" rather than swear his oath.
At the presidential level, there seems to be some room for improvisation. John Quincy Adams took his oath on a book of law, for example.
Roosevelt chose not to use a Bible when he was inaugurated on the heels of William McKinley's assassination in 1901, but Harry Truman (for his second inauguration), Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush used two Bibles apiece.
And Lyndon Johnson took his oath on a Catholic liturgical missal found in John F. Kennedy's bedside table on Air Force One.
But the protocol in Congress is a bit different. Newly elected or re-elected members take their oath, from the presiding officer in the Senate or the speaker of the House, in an open legislative session on the chamber floor. Lawmakers do not traditionally hold their hands over any tome during this swearing-in ceremony.
However, because there is a ban on photography in the legislative galleries, U.S. senators sometimes pose for a mock swearing-in photograph, some with the holy book of their choosing, in the Capitol building's Old Senate Chamber. Their colleagues in the House may also opt to stage a private re-enactment after the fact.
Although there is no indication his swearing-in was any different from his peers', the first Jew elected to Congress was Pennsylvanian Lewis Charles Levin of the American Party, who took his oath in 1845. (Levin was a Southern teetotaler, who relocated to Philadelphia. He rallied for temperance and against Catholicism.)
Several modern day Jewish legislators have requested alternate holy scripture during their photo ops. According to The Hill, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., refused to pose with a copy of the New Testament that House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., had on hand for her mock swearing-in ceremony in 2005. A scramble for a copy of the Tanakh, or Old Testament Bible, ensued and Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y, came through in the clutch with a copy.
Other Jewish office holders have used the Tanakh, including Ed Koch, D-N.Y., who served in the U.S. House in the 1970s, and longtime Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
The first Mormon to join the House was John Milton Bernhisel, in 1851. Bernhisel, a physician born in Tyrone Township, near Harrisburg, later settled in Utah and served as live-in doctor for his religion's founder, Joseph Smith, delivering several of Smith's children.
The first and only Sikh congressman was Singh Saund, D-Calif., who served for three terms beginning in 1957.
Choosing to affirm rather than swear to an oath is a choice, not necessarily a declaration of any particular ideology.
Mr. Feldberg, of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, said Seventh Day Adventists and certain Orthodox Jews are forbidden from taking a public oath of any sort. For these individuals, oaths must be taken in private, between oneself and a higher power.
They do not pertain to worldly matters, nor are they to involve third parties, like the U.S. Constitution.
And for those wondering, had Mitt Romney, a member of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, won the presidential election and faced the "what book" question, he could have used either the Bible or The Book of Mormon, had he chosen to do so.
First Published November 19, 2012 12:00 am