Justice Arthur Goldberg Swore His Oath of Office on the Hebrew Bible:

Just thought I'd note that apropos my response to Dennis Prager.

Prager wrote that "for all of American history, Jews elected to public office have taken their oath on the Bible, even though they do not believe in the New Testament," and I realize that a Justice isn't an elected official. Nonetheless, Justices and elected officials are bound by the same oath-or-affirmation provision of the Constitution, and all federal officeholders are equally protected by the Religious Test Clause.

Lonely Capitalist (mail):
What if a left-leaning person wanted to take an oath on Marx's Das Capital or Mao's Little Red Book. Or a fascist on Mein Kampf? (Of course we would probably not be told their true beliefs until after they won.) How open is/should the choice of book be? Is a book really required at all?
11.29.2006 5:19pm

According to any of the relevant authorities I have seen, a book is not required. And I think the propriety of alternative books would depend in part on whether the book was actually sacred to the person such that an oath sworn while touching it would have special meaning to the person, not just on whether the book expressed the person's beliefs.
11.29.2006 5:24pm
Kovarsky (mail):
I think the oath is to uphold the constitution, not the book you put your hand on. The idea is that you pledge your oath and, symbolically, collateralize your earnest belief in the text of whatever you swear on. The important part is that you believe earnestly in something, not what it says. If you put your hand on a hustler magazine you're not pledging an oath to serve jenna jamison.
11.29.2006 5:28pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Sounds like we have a compromise!
11.29.2006 5:30pm
The oath is the important part. Everything else is pure ceremony.

Substituting the holy book of one's own religion is an utterly unremarkable variation of the ceremony, and no one would say a word about it if any religion other than Islam were at issue. But it is Islam, so we get all these silly hypotheticals like "what if it was a copy of Mein Kampf?" and "what if it was a book called How to Lie?" Enough already.
11.29.2006 5:35pm
Maniakes (mail):
Lonely Capitalist, I'd hope voters would have to sense to not elect anyone who holds Das Capital or Mein Kampf sacred.
11.29.2006 5:35pm
Kovarsky (mail):
I guess I'd like to follow my point through to the logical conclusion. If all the item upon which you lay your hand represents is the symbolic collateral for your promise to uphold the constitution, all that placing your hand on a Koran does is express that the Koran is a more personally important document to you than is the bible. I have no problem with that idea, and i'd argue that those who do don't have a terribly firm grasp of First Amendment law or more general social norms of religious tolerance.
11.29.2006 5:35pm
Kovarsky (mail):

As a practical matter, how does one take an oath on the Torah, given that you're not supposed to touch it? That must have been logistically challenging.
11.29.2006 5:39pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
The same point was raised about the Koran in a previous post... Won't we incite hysteria in the Muslim world if we use the Koran in a political ceremony? Should we wear sterile gloves?

(Sarcasm of course... I don't really think this would happen or care if it does.)
11.29.2006 5:42pm
Spartacus (www):
How about swearing the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution on a copy of the Constitution?
11.29.2006 5:49pm
Kovarsky (mail):

How about swearing the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution on a copy of the Constitution?

this country was founded on god, not the constitution.
11.29.2006 5:52pm
Adam (www):
Kovasrky: You're not supposed to touch the handwritten scroll; you're allowed to touch a book which reproduces its text mechanically.
11.29.2006 6:22pm
Archon (mail):
I think the argument is mainly tradition vs. comprimising long standing traditions in the name of religious accommodation.

It is fairly obvious that the oath is secular and that the ceremony itself is secular in nature (absent the presence of a religious text that plays a relatively small role.) The role of the bible is largely symbolic. It merely demonstrates that the swearer recognizes a higher power.

I'm not a history buff, but my guess is this tradition has been carried on since the days of England and religious based colonies. Over time, the meaning behind the precense of the bible has slowly been lost and it has just become incorporated into the ceremony without much of a religious element. Now adays, to remove the bible and replace it with something else is tinkering with an age old tradition. I think that is why people object.

In fact, I spoke to a friend of mine (athiest) who was recently sworn in to a local office. He swore on a historic bible and had no objections to doing it. When I asked him if he thought twice about it immediately said "Absolutely not". When I asked him to elaborate he said that he took the oath on that bible because it represented a rich history to him. He said when he took the oath he thought of the other officials that had done the same thing over the last one hundred years. He said he viewed it as a common link with officeholders in the past and his co-holders in the present.
11.29.2006 6:33pm
Archon (mail):
Although, in this circumstance, I really don't see a problem with accommodating a Muslim who wishes to swear on the Koran; it is sort of ironic to note that he will be swearing on a text that instructs him that it is OK to lie to all non-believers.
11.29.2006 6:42pm
Waldensian (mail):

If you put your hand on a hustler magazine you're not pledging an oath to serve jenna jamison.

You're so wrong.
11.29.2006 6:44pm
Kovarsky (mail):

That's right, I knew I forgot the rule. I've become such a Jewish scrub since my bar mitzvah.
11.29.2006 6:44pm
DAWeinstein (mail):
There are numerous other examples of Jewish officials being sworn in on the Torah, Hebrew bible, or various prayer books. See
11.29.2006 7:19pm
plunge (mail):
Eugene, you are remarkably kind to a man that invokes Nazis and claims that Ellison is emboldening Al Qaeda by swearing on his religious text. You address his arguments, but I think you need to acknowledge the true depravity of the rhetoric he used. Ellison, btw, is no stranger to this. Glenn Beck basically asked him to prove that he wasn't a terrorist... just because the guy is Muslim.

I also find utterly bizarre a Jew who thinks that unless Jews basically treat the Christian Bible as superior and politically authoritative, they are undermining CIVILIZATION. Let's be honest here: it's one thing to respect Christianity, as a Jew. But basically demanding that Jews recognize the Bible as THE American religious book, and assuming that Christianity is the culmination of one coherent whole between Judaism and Christianity is not a Jewish position. It is the Christian position. Only someone who is in fact a Christian actually thinks that way, and Prager is definitely giving me doubts about whether or not he's converted.
11.29.2006 7:32pm
Proud to be a liberal :
A Christian colleague has advised me that the current term for the Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible. How could anyone challenge the right of a Jewish person to choose to swear an oath on the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament given that the First Amendment protects the freedom of religion and therefore the choice of religion?
11.29.2006 7:39pm
WHOI Jacket:
Considering the crap that Prager puts up with all the time, I'm going to excuse the occasional outburst of his.

For the record, if a Muslim individual wants to swear on the Koran, it's fine by me. I just expect him to hold to it. Thats all.
11.29.2006 7:44pm
dejapooh (mail):
The country may have been founded by those who believe in god, but it is quite telling that they swear on the bible to uphold the constitution... no where is it required or even recommended that they swear to uphold and defend the bible.
11.29.2006 7:49pm
Peter Wimsey:
For the record, if a Muslim individual wants to swear on the Koran, it's fine by me. I just expect him to hold to it. Thats all.

Why hold him to a higher standard than a non-muslim officeholder? :)

On a more serious note, my state's constitution (from 1851) provides:
The mode of administering an oath or affirmation, shall be such as may be most consistent with, and binding upon, the conscience of the person, to whom such oath or affirmation may be administered.

I think that this - as others have pointed out - is the basis that most people swear on the bible - because swearing on a bible underscores the seriousness of the oath. But of course this doesn't really apply to non-believers, who should swear in whatever manner is most binding upon their conscience.
11.29.2006 7:59pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
The oath is mandatory: the book optional. I suppose the book comes in as an appeal to divine punishment if the person lies. Which means it is just as well that the bible isn't much used in court anyway ... keeps us out of the danger zone of the many lightning hits that would be generated.

I recall my late ex father in law pointing out that in Italy, the saints were taken at a very personal level. One example being a medieval story of a fellow whose word was challenged, and he offered to swear by St. Peter. Another objected it was a trick -- he knows that St. Peter is a kindly old fisherman and would forgive him the lie. Instead let him swear by St. (whoever), who was martyred by the romans at age 8. (A snuffed 8 year old would presumably have a hotter temper and less restraint). So he swears by the other saint and is of course immediately struck dead for his perjury.
11.29.2006 8:00pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
The oath is not mandatory Dave. I suggest you read the Constitution again. See Article VI.
11.29.2006 9:00pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
By the way, there is no religious reason for not touching Torah scrolls; rather, it is because they are made of sheep skin and your hands can either smudge the ink on it or deteriorate the paper (or both, don't remember). Any book, scroll, etc. that has the name of God written in it (the formal name, erroneously referred to by some Christians as "Jehovah) must be treated with respect however. For example, when you drop a prayer book on the floor, you kiss it when you pick it up. When you dispose of a Torah, you bury it, etc., etc.

And I just read my Torah, and there is a passage in it about Dennis Prager being a complete idiot. A real idiot.
11.29.2006 9:08pm
Byomtov (mail):
The Torah and the Hebrew Bible are not the same thing. The Hebrew Bible includes the Torah: the five books of Moses, as well as the Prophets(Neviim): Joshua to Malachi, and the Writings(Ketuvim): Psalms to Chronicles. The whole thing is often called Tanach, a Hebrew acronym for, surprise, Torah, Neviim, Ketuvim.
11.29.2006 10:01pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Instead of looking it up I'll leave it to someone else to tell me it's a false urban legend that the words "testimony" and "testicles" are releated, because the Romans used to swear by placing their hands on the organ that they most valued. That would be fun to try, but I'd probably have to first convince them that I worship the ancient Roman pantheon.
11.29.2006 10:15pm
Yosef Ibrahimi (mail):
Originally posted by Archon:
it is sort of ironic to note that he will be swearing on a text that instructs him that it is OK to lie to all non-believers.

Would you mind providing a source for this contention? Since you contend that the Quran instructs Muslims that it is acceptable to lie to non-believers, I assume you can provide some textual basis to back this allegation.
11.29.2006 10:46pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):

As I read Art. VI an OATH is required, just not a "religious test."
11.29.2006 10:55pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Jon Rowe,

An "oath or affirmation" is required, not an oath exclusively. It's stated in the alternative.
11.29.2006 11:07pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
The oath is not mandatory Dave. I suggest you read the Constitution again. See Article VI.

OK, so it's oath or affirmation. They had to keep the Quakers happy. It created quite a controversy at the time, as I recall, since the requirement applied to all executive and judicial officials of the states, as well as of the federal government.

I remember being "sworn in" as a grunt GS-13 attorney/advisor at Interior, and quipping to the personnel officer who did it that I did have reservations about whether the Constitutional Convention had exceeded its authority...
11.29.2006 11:31pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
The Torah and the Hebrew Bible are not the same thing. The Hebrew Bible includes the Torah: the five books of Moses, as well as the Prophets(Neviim): Joshua to Malachi, and the Writings(Ketuvim): Psalms to Chronicles. The whole thing is often called Tanach, a Hebrew acronym for, surprise, Torah, Neviim, Ketuvim.

True; who said it was? And further showing the idiocy of Prager, by the way, is that the Catholics' and Orthodox Old Testament differs from the Protestant Old Testament -- so Prager would have Catholics swearing on a Bible that is, to them, incomplete. (The Protestant Old Testament is the same as the Hebrew Bible (except the Protestants, like the Catholics, rearranged it), while the Catholic/Orthodox Old Testament includes non-canonical Hebrew books, such as Judith, Tobit, and extra books of Macabees.)
11.29.2006 11:40pm
Public_Defender (mail):
As a liberal who enjoys conservative and libertarian opinion pieces (they keep me on my toes), the thing that astonished me about Prager's column was how obviously stupid and bigoted it was. It resembled a rant in the comment section of a blog more than a nationally syndicated column. No thoughtful person could agree with it. The man really needs an editor.

Thanks to professors Volokh and Bainbridge for responding to the column (and to professor Volokh for doing so on National Review, where conservatives will see it).

The question now is whether Prager will have the integrity to admit his mistake.
11.30.2006 5:04am
Shake-N-Bake (www):
Wait, wouldn't have been more appropriate if he had put his hand on a lever, which activated a ball rolling down a track, which knocked over some dominoes which that then flipped a spinny thing that knocked into a lever which released a hand that then fell onto a Hebrew Bible?

Whoops, wrong Goldberg.
11.30.2006 9:57am
Byomtov (mail):
True; who said it was?

It struck me that there was some confusion in the comments above. Perhaps not.

Sorry to inconvenience you.
11.30.2006 11:32am
velvel in atlanta (mail):
If the new Congressman follows through on his oath to uphold and defend the Constitution it will put him way ahead of most of his colleagues who seem to see the Constitution as a fleeting wind passing by.
11.30.2006 12:32pm
velvel in atlanta (mail):
and what might a Wiccan use? or an athiest? or a B'hai? but try to tell that to Dennis Prager...
11.30.2006 12:33pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
I wrote about the testify/testicles connection.
My apologies to Toby who had raised the same point (though ascribing the practice to Anglo-Saxons, not Romans) in the "Multiculturalism..." entry's comments some seven hours earlier.
11.30.2006 1:39pm
MDJD2B (mail):
I was recently a litigant, and wtched witness after witness "swear" an oath on a King James Bible. I was not sure whether I would go along, or whether I would bring the Hebrew Bible, or what. This would, of course, draw the attention of the judge and jury.

When the time came, during the thrid week of the trial, there was a substitute court clerk. He was an orthodox Jew. He walked over to me with the King James Bible. I rased my eyebrows. He did not offer it to me, and asked me if I "sw[ore] or affirm[ed]." I did, and avoided the problem. I never saw the guy again during the trial or around the court house.

In any event, I avoided having to face my crisis of conscience.
11.30.2006 3:02pm
I can't remember the last time I saw a trial witness sworn in on any book. The again, I practice in NYC, which, in the mind of the Dennis Pragers of the world, is not America.
11.30.2006 3:48pm
addie loggins (mail):
And, as Think Progress pointed out, there is one other minor error in Prager's reasoning: to wit, the swearing-in ceremony for the House of Representatives never includes a religious book of any kind. Period.

Those pictures you see of Congresspeople with their hands on the Bible? Those are posed photos they take afterwards, just for show.
11.30.2006 4:34pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
'this country was founded on god, not the constitution.'

Not correct. See Article VI, which is the only reference in the Constitution to religion or belief.

I am interested in Archon's friend, the atheist taking local office. Elective office? I thought we were all agreed atheists cannot even be elected dogcatcher in this country. Is he in the closet? Is there an office lower than dogcatcher we atheists can aspire to? Fence viewer?

CJ, at the other end of the country, in Hawaii, swearing is done without books. I don't know why. I have considered, since moving to Hawaii, that having a population that is 16% Buddhist -- and that 16% some of the most respected and succeessful -- keeps the frothing at the mouth Christians in check. It certainly is a different atmosphere here from my home state of Tennessee, as just demonstrated in the senatorial election.

The governor of Hawaii, by the way, is Jewish. I don't recall whether she swore on anything in her first inaugural.
11.30.2006 4:59pm
John Jenkins (mail):
I've never seem a witness swear on a Bible or any other book, and I am in Oklahoma City. The judges just have the witnesses raise their right hands.
11.30.2006 10:07pm
Justthisguy (mail) (www):
Some take the "book" thing more seriously than others. I seem to recall seeing a film clip showing Harry Truman being sworn in, in which he bent over and kissed the Bible. I think such used to be required in British courts until the germ theory of disease gained currency.
12.1.2006 7:34pm