When the members of the 113th Congress were sworn-in to office last week, each of them was swearing to uphold the U.S. Constitution—but there was great variation upon what authority they were swearing to do so by.
There is no requirement that members of Congress hold any text when they take their official oaths of office on the chamber floors or when they take a photo of the ceremonial oath afterward. However, many do—in fact, the Library of Congress provides a range of items to use: Protestant and Catholics bibles, Hindu texts, Buddhist verses, Qurans, and copies of the U.S. Constitution. Some members bring their own books and texts; some members hold nothing at all.
When taking an oath, you are promising to do something. The idea of using a text or book with your hand upon it indicates that you are invoking the authority of that text or book to show how seriously you take your oath.
So how do we judge the sincerity of members of Congress who use religious texts to promise to uphold the secular Constitution of the United States? Is this not the very definition of serving two masters and combining religion and government?
Each member of Congress has the right to his or her religious beliefs—it’s guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. In this 113th Congress, Tulsi Gabbard is the first Hindu elected to Congress. The Representative from Hawaii and Iraq war veteran used her copy of Bhagavad-Gita for her swearing-in, which she said contained words that had brought wisdom and taught her to be a servant-leader. Other members used the Torah, different versions of the Bible, and the Quran. How does the average American, who belongs to one religion or another—or who isn’t religious at all—appreciate and understand these elected officials’ commitment to their new positions when the officials choose to use a text or book whose authority cannot be measured against anyone else’s in Congress? How does one compare the authority of the Bible to the Bhagavad-Gita or the Torah to the Quran? If your member of Congress uses a religious text that you do not believe in, how do you know whether to believe in your elected official?
If members of Congress are going to use a text at all when they are sworn-in, they should all use the same text—the text that they are swearing to uphold. The text that is known to all Americans, that has only one translation, that is the foundation upon which all decisions the members should be making, and that is the recognized authority for our country, our government, and for all its citizens—the U.S. Constitution.