Sam's Blog

Twenty-four hours is like three weeks!

Old Books and Strong Oaths

Posted by samgr on January 6, 2007

Why is it 70 degrees out on January 6th in Massachusetts? I’m basically ok with it, but how about this guy?

Polar Bear

Anyway, thanks to the spate of political inaugurations we just went through, a couple of stories have surfaced having to do with one of the props that has often played a supporting role in the pomp surrounding the assumption of power: the Bible.

First, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts took his oath of office on the Mendi Bible, a Bible that was given to John Quincy Adams by the Amistad mutineers in gratitude for his arguing (and winning) their case before the US Supreme Court. I went to Patrick’s inauguration on the Common, and he mentioned this in his speech. It was an interesting piece of symbolism, linking the occasionally starchy-seeming history of Massachusetts with African American history and Patrick’s own life story. Of course, since it was a Bible, Christianity is presumably mixed up in there somewhere too.

In the same vein — and more widely covered in the national media — is the fact that Keith Ellison, America’s first Muslim congressman, took his oath of office on a Koran rather than a Bible. Sort of. Actually, despite all of the furor that this has caused, the actual oath is apparently taken at the same time as all of the other congressmen, and the book in question is only used for a photo op afterwards. In any case, Virginia congressman Virgil Goode attacked Mr. Ellison’s choice, claiming that it was a threat to America’s Christian heritage. Congressman Goode also somehow linked this point to an argument against illegal immigration, which is confusing considering that Congressman Ellison was born in Detroit.

What ended up happening is that Congressman Ellison used a copy of the Koran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson. This was another nice piece of symbolism and a reasonably effective retort to Congressman Goode’s blind bigotry.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about all of this, but clearly books are important even when they’re not being read, since they’re very good at acting as ways to link people and ideas from different historical eras. What do people think about this? In these cases, does it even matter that these are books, rather than other kinds of objects? Are the Bibles and Korans being used at these events any different from religious symbols that aren’t books: crosses or prayer shawls or kirpans? And of course, is this whole business of taking the oath on a religious text obsolete anyway, or, for that matter, actively against the principle of separation of church and state? Is this pageantry useful and meaningful, or just archaic?

Some Huffington Post bloggers have produced some interesting posts about this. David Kuo argues that America’s real holy texts are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (and reminds us about Article VI, Section 3). Patt Morrison asks why we can’t just pick any book? I wonder if we have to have actually read it. You could impress a lot of people as a real sophisticate by swearing in on Finnegan’s Wake, for instance. Although possibly not Virgil Goode.

I guess what I’m getting down to is that it would probably make everything simpler if we abandoned the whole book idea and went back to the way the ancients did it: swearing oaths while holding our own testicles (sadly not actually true).


2 Responses to “Old Books and Strong Oaths”

  1. Roxie said

    I heard a guy call in to an NPR show and ask why the government couldn’t just put floating docks into the oceans for the polar bears to stand on as their ice recedes. He prefaced this comment by sayin “I don’t know very much about a lot of things…”
    I really like the idea of swearing oaths on the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The assumption that all elected officials have some committment to the authority of the Bible is silly given the diversity of our populace and the ostensible secularism of the state. I feel like the practice does more to enforce WASP hegemony than it does to unite people under a common divine law. In congress, if all of the members swear in together, they could have a combination of religious texts available with the speaker, so that they are all bound by a common recognition of the value of religion in upholding morals. If the tradition of bible-swearing were changed, you could endow a lot of other text-objects with sacred mystique once they became established as dominant icons in inauguration ceremonies (although maybe not Finnegan’s Wake..oy). I’m reminded of Justice Black who carried a copy of the constitution with him always, as though it were a sacred text.

  2. Caroline said

    Hi Sam!
    There was some episode of, I believe, Murder, She Wrote, in which a priest testified and lied (all part of the scheme to uncover the real killer, of course), and he “used his own Bible”, substituting a copy of Moby Dick. Crazy, huh? So, that was all to make the fact that he lied less important, because instead of breaking an oath made with God, he broke an oath made with Melville. Although Melville may be turning in his grave, it’s possible that this is event goes to the reason why people don’t just swear on any book. However, if you hold Melville in greater esteem…
    Yeah, whatever.

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