Does The President Have To Be Sworn In With A Bible?

On January 20, 2017, with his right hand raised and left hand on a Bible, Donald J. Trump will take the oath of office as stipulated by Article II, Section One, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution, and be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.

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 wait a second, why a Bible? Shouldn’t this be a secular event? Are incoming presidents required by law to be sworn in with a Bible?

The answer is no.

Whether in a courtroom, or taking the oath of office, a Bible is not required in the act of “swearing in.” The ritual of using a Bible during a presidential inauguration is a matter of precedent, not law, dating back to the first president, George Washington. The Constitution only specifies the oath itself and says nothing about how the oath should be administered. That means any book could be used, or in fact no book at all. John Quincy Adams was sworn into office with his hand on the pages of a constitutional law book. Further more, the Constitution does not tell us who should administer the presidential oath, even if we know by precedent that it is the Supreme Court Chief Justice.

The presidential oath of office, as quoted earlier,  is word-for-word from the Constitution, and you may have noticed the phrase “So help me God” is not included. — As an aside, God is never mentioned in the Constitution. — But you are probably aware, that for as long as most of us have been alive, this phrase has been included in presidential swearing in ceremonies. Just as the Bible is optional, so too is the phrase “So help me God.” The phrase is intended to convey the seriousness of the oath, and again, George Washington set the precedent in its use, and every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has used this phrase.

The Presidential Oath of Office, as witnessed by those present, and by extension tens or hundreds of millions by television, is a legally binding affirmation. The optics of swearing on a Bible may raise questions of church-state separation for some, but the oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” is what matters legally. The Bible and the phrase “So help me God” in this context are merely symbolic gestures of the importance of the oath.

Even if many Americans assume these matters of decorum are codified by law, it is simply tradition for the Chief Justice to administer the oath of office and for the incoming president to repeat this affirmation with one hand on a Bible.

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