The Congressional swearing ceremony

When Muslim congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) was elected in 2006, some people were outraged when he said that he would take his oath of office by swearing on the Koran. Dennis Prager even urged that he should be forbidden from doing so, saying “Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress.” Prager then went completely bonkers, saying that allowing Ellison to carry out his intentions would signal the end of America as we know it: “If Keith Ellison is allowed to change that, he will be doing more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.”

Surprisingly there seems to be much less attention paid to the fact that a new member of the recently elected House of Representatives Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is a Hindu and that she supposedly took her oath of office by swearing on the Bhagavad Gita, a book that was supposedly delivered to human by Lord Krishna and is part of the epic Mahabharata that is sacred to Hindus.

But as Eugene Volokh points out, people like Prager are hyperventilating for no reason. The official swearing-in ceremony is a mass one is which members simply raise their right hands and, led by the speaker, make the required ‘oath or affirmation’. This is because the US Constitution (Article VI, paragraph 3) has no mention of any book for the swearing in, saying simply: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” [My italics-MS]

If members want to carry another book with them during the official ceremony, even Fifty Shades of Grey, that is fine but those books are not part of the ceremony. Some members later take a ceremonial photograph with the speaker using a book that is special to them but that has no official status. It is this purely private and symbolic act that had Prager and others like him in such a lather.


  1. slc1 says

    Keith Ellison was sworn in on a Koran once owned by Thomas Jefferson, which was borrowed from the library at Monticello for that purpose. As one wag put it, one could be sworn in on a copy of the Principia or On the Origin of Species.

  2. says

    I think that swearing on a copy of the US Constitution should be mandatory. Or better yet, the test taken by the swearee on basic civics, after getting a passing score (80% or better.)

  3. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    I must have been watching too much Monty Python, because “The Congressional swearing ceremony” made me think about a roomful of delegates orating fuck loud and clear.

    If they need a book, I’d recommend 1984.

  4. Crudely Wrott says

    Might I add another title? How about swearing on a copy of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?


  5. Kevin Dugan says

    I agree with #4 Gregory in Seattle, however, it should be a self-hand-written copy of the consititution validated by a 3rd party. That way they can’t plead ignorance of its contents.

    For the religious fundies, it’s even has biblical precedent: Deuteronomy 17:18
    “When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites.”

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