There is no law that requires a person being sworn into public office to place a hand on a Bible. There is no law that requires a person being sworn into public office to place a hand on any book. Or on anything.
This came as a surprise last month to Ted Crockett, spokesman for former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. Crockett told CNN that non-Christians should not be elected to public office because of the law requiring them to be sworn in on a Bible.
“That is not the law,” CNN’s Jake Tapper told him. “You didn’t know that?”
Crockett’s response was to stare, open-mouthed, at Tapper. Clearly, no, he didn’t know that.
My response, of course, was to stare, open-mouthed, at Crockett. And then to hit Google. If you can swear on any book (or anything), what have others done?
Glad you asked.
For presidents, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on a Catholic missal. John Quincy Adams was sworn in on a law book. (He was also the first to be sworn in while wearing pants — instead of knee breeches, that is.) Teddy Roosevelt, sworn in in a hurry following the death of William McKinley, was sworn in with no book at all.
Some officials have laid a hand on a closed Bible; others have chosen a particular page of the Bible. President Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, swore four times on 1 Corinthians 13: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
Some have gotten all fancy and used multiple Bibles. (Barack Obama used Abraham Lincoln’s Bible and the Rev. Martin Luther King Junior’s Bible. Donald Trump also used Lincoln’s Bible and then added one of his own.)
But beyond Bibles:
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., was sworn in with the Qur’an — Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, published in 1764.
In 2014, when Suzi LeVine was sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, she placed her hand on a Kindle Touch, which had been fired up to display the U.S. Constitution. (She was not the first to use an e-reader. A group of firefighters in New Jersey used an e-reader version of the Bible, as did a public official on Long Island.)
So all this, of course, made me long to run for public office, just so I could pick the appropriate book to be sworn in on. But which book? A dictionary? A thesaurus? A collection of poetry?
I posed this question on Facebook and got a slew of wonderful answers, only a few of which were sincere. “Ulysses,” said one, an Irishman, of course. Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” said another. (Wish I’d thought of that.)
A Scrabble game, said another. My bins of personal letters collected over a lifetime, said another.
Given that it does not have to be a book at all, one person chose her dog, but that was clearly silly; what dog would sit still for such a show?
A stack of poetry, said another: Mary Oliver, Robert Bly, David Whyte, Rumi, Emily Dickinson.
What book? Facebook, said another. Ah. Clever.
OK, fine answers all. But now I’ll turn the question to you: What book would have enough meaning, enough symbolism, enough weight and gravitas to match the seriousness of the moment? What book would you choose to swear on — or affirm — should you be elected to public service?
As one person said, “If I were ever elected to public office, I would swear in on the Constitution. I don’t think anyone should be allowed to swear in on a religious text.”
A fine answer. What’s yours? Write me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: www.facebook.com/startribunebooks