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On Popes, Swearing In On Bibles And Religion In Public Life

Catholic clergy sit among members of Congress as Pope Francis addressed a joint meeting of Congress Thursday.

You may never have offered to swear something "on a stack of Bibles," but you probably recognize that folksy phrase as a variation on saying, "Honest to God."

And when you hear: "Raise your right hand, do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth...," you may very well have your left hand on a Bible.

That's the way it happens in swearing-in ceremonies from Washington, D.C., to state capitols to local courthouses. People have been laying hands on Bibles to attest to their veracity for nearly as long as there have been Bibles. And while an actual Bible may not be present in many cases, the words "so help me God" are still routinely part of the oath itself.

Swearing in on Bibles got new attention this week — not just because of the pope being in town but also because of the Republican presidential campaign. Ben Carson said he want a Muslim president. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, said he'd be OK with one, if the following (bolding is ours):

"If you can find me a Muslim candidate who is a Republican, who will fight hard to protect religious liberty, who will respect the Judeo-Christian heritage of America, who will be committed to destroying ISIS and radical Islam, who will condemn cultures that treat women as second class citizens and who will place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution, then yes, I will be happy to consider voting for him or her."

Swearing in on Bibles has a long history. So normative is this practice, this invocation of the Almighty backed up by a copy of Judeo-Christian scripture, that many people assume it is set in law — if not in the Constitution itself. It is not. It is merely a tradition, but as traditions go, it is about as powerful as you will find in American life. But not every American president has actually sworn in on a Bible.

George Washington took his oath of office on a Bible, which he then kissed. The latter gesture remained part of the ritual for more than 150 years.

Some presidents have brought out Washington's Bible for their own inauguration days, while others have used family Bibles. Most recently, President Obama took his oath with two Bibles, Abraham Lincoln's and another that belonged to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The exceptions to the Bible rule have been few, but meaningful:

  • John Adams in 1797 held his left hand on a law book, a stand-in for the Constitution he was swearing to uphold.
  • His son, John Quincy Adams, did the same in 1825, despite being said to be deeply religious.
  • In 1901, Teddy Roosevelt, taken by surprise by news of the assassination of his predecessor, William McKinley, took the oath with no book at all.
  • Similarly caught up in events in Dallas in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson found the closest thing to a Bible at hand on Air Force One. It was a Roman Catholic missal used in saying Mass.

Closing the oath with the phrase "so help me God" has been part of the tradition since at least 1888, when evidence indicates President Chester A. Arthur said it. Other sources suggest the phrase may go back as far Washington himself.

Ceremonies are an occasion for open representations of religion in American politics. That includes not only inaugurations and funerals but also the new tradition of papal visits. The first pope to arrive on these shores came in 1965, but since then his successors have come regularly. And with this new feature on the political landscape, old questions have once again been raised.

Americans have become accustomed to seeing the U.S. president — and a horde of other politicians — paying obeisance to the Holy Father. Is it seemly for secular public officials to behave in this way? Does it blur the distinction between church and state that has been a feature of our culture since the Revolution?

The separation was a freethinker's innovation in that era, a reaction to the frequent bloodletting between Protestants and Catholics in England and Europe generally. The framers enshrined it in Article VI of the Constitution, which forbade any "religious test" for federal office, and in the First Amendment's protection for religious liberty.

We hear a lot about both these constitutional themes these days. In addition to the hornet's nest that Carson kicked in this week, the federal court system has been busy for years now deciding which element of Obamacare might violate a business person's conscience. And that's not even to mention the disruptions caused by the Supreme Court's blessing of same-sex marriage.

In truth, no one has ever defined the borderline between respect for religion, which is clearly part of the American culture, and slavish fealty to any given church or creed. Many voices in the evangelical Protestant community now question, even deny, the existence of a church-state divide.

So the spectacle of a papal visit, with attendant live coverage by all the cable TV and other news organizations, causes some to ask: Is there another person on the planet we would pay this much attention to?

The answer is not simply in the Catholic portion of the population, which measures between a fifth and a quarter of the total. It is not even in Christian majority, which with all its strains and elements claims about two-thirds of the population.

Much seems to depend on the persona of the pope himself, and the relative popularity of his message. Devout Catholics, of course, thrill to the presence of the pontiff. But for the rest of us, there is a natural tendency to wonder just what is going on.

Watching CNN, for example, devote breathless hours of coverage to every move the pope made (including his travel between cities) leaves the impression that the pontiff is quite simply the most important person on the planet. One could get much the same impression watching Pope Francis enthrall the entire U.S. Congress for nearly an hour on Thursday morning.

Some of this is due to the prominence of the current pontiff, Pope Francis, who has shown himself a reformer within the church who is not afraid to speak to large issues of world affairs and public policy. He also has a genial manner and a benign sort of charisma, not unlike the more conservative Pope John Paul II.

Some is also due to the toss-up political allegiance of Catholics, who can go either way in presidential elections. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center pegged the Catholic share of the U.S. at just over 20 percent, while other measures have historically put it around 25 percent. In recent years, the church has been replenishing its numbers with Hispanic arrivals in the U.S., replacing the various European immigrants and their descendants who have died or left the fold.

But overall, some seven-in-10 Americans still describe themselves as Christians, and for most of them the arrival of the pope carries a certain fascination even if they are not part of the Roman tradition. It is a moment when a nation otherwise dominated by secular influences — most especially in the media — stops what it is doing and contemplates a man of faith. That alone is enough to command a certain smile of appreciation from adherents of all faiths.

In the end, it may say nothing more about where America is going than all those Bibles on which countless hands have been placed for more than two centuries.

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