Biden’s Bible brings it into line with inaugural tradition

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FILE – In this file photo from Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, Vice President Joe Biden is sworn in in the Senate by Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., As her husband, Douglas Emhoff, holds the Bible during a mock swearing-in ceremony in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington as the 115th Congress begins. President-elect Biden and Vice-President-elect Harris are expected to be sworn in on Wednesday, Jan.20, 2021, using Bibles loaded with personal meaning, writing new chapters in a long-standing American tradition – and one that appears nowhere in law. (AP Photo / Kevin Wolf)

WASHINGTON – Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in on Wednesday using Bibles loaded with personal meaning, writing new chapters in a long-standing American tradition – and one that doesn’t appear anywhere in the law.

The Constitution does not require the use of a specific text for oath-taking ceremonies and only specifies the wording of the President’s oath. This wording does not include the phrase “So help me God,” but every modern president has added it to their oaths and most have chosen symbolically meaningful Bibles for their investitures.

This includes Biden, who used the same family Bible he used twice when he was sworn in as vice president and seven times as a senator from Delaware.

The book, several inches thick, and which his late son Beau also used when he was sworn in as Delaware’s Attorney General, has been a “family heirloom” since 1893 and “every significant date is there. Biden told the late night talk show host. Stephen Colbert last month.

“Why is your Bible bigger than mine?” Do you have more of Jesus than I do? joked Colbert, who, like Biden, is a practicing Catholic.

Biden’s use of his family Bible underscores the important role his faith has played in his personal and professional life – and will continue to do so as he becomes the second Catholic president in United States history.

It follows in the tradition of many other presidents who have used family scriptures to take the oath, including Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

Some have seen their Bibles open to personally relevant passages during their ceremonies. Bill Clinton, for example, chose Isaiah 58:12 – which urges the devotee to be a “mender of the breach” – for his second investiture after a first term marked by political schisms with the Conservatives.

Others have been sworn in on closed Bibles, such as John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, who in 1961 used his family’s centennial book with a large cross on the front, similar to Biden’s.

The tradition of using a Bible dates back to the Presidency itself, with the holy book used by George Washington later appearing in an exhibit at the Smithsonian, on loan from the Masonic Lodge which provided it in 1789. The Washington Bible then went on to been used for oaths. by Warren G. Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush.

But not all presidents have used a Bible. Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in in 1901 without one after William McKinley’s death, while John Quincy Adams used a law book in 1825, according to his own account.

Some have used several Bibles during their ceremonies: Barack Obama and Donald Trump both chose to use, along with others, the copy to which Abraham Lincoln was sworn in in 1861.

Harris did the same for his Vice Presidential Oath, using a Bible owned by a close family friend and owned by the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Harris spoke of his admiration for Marshall, another Howard University graduate and government pioneer as the first African-American High Court judge.

“When I raise my right hand and take the oath of office tomorrow, I take with me two heroes who would speak up for the voiceless and help those in need,” Harris tweeted Tuesday, referring to Marshall and to her friend Regina Shelton, whose Bible she swore on when she became attorney general of California and later a senator.

Harris, who attended both Baptist and Hindu services as a child, adores the Baptist faith as an adult.

While American lawmakers have generally used Bibles for their oaths, some have chosen alternatives that reflect their religious diversity.

Democratic Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress, used a Koran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson in 2007, sparking objections from some Christian conservatives.

Jefferson’s Quran made a comeback in 2019 when Michigan Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, was sworn in.

Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., Chose a Hebrew Bible in 2005 to reflect her Jewish faith. Newly elected Georgia Democratic Senator Jon Ossoff, who is also Jewish and sworn in on Wednesday, used Hebrew scriptures belonging to Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, an ally of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement.

Former Representative Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, opted for Bhagavad Gita in 2013 after becoming the first Hindu elected to Congress.

And Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, the only current congressman who identifies as “without religious affiliation,” was sworn in on the Constitution in 2018.


The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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