One newly elected congressman from California, Robert Garcia, will take his oath of office with his hand on a Superman comic book instead of the more traditional Bible.
Is it his intention to mock the process of swearing the oath of office? As so often happens, there’s more to the story. And to oaths.
Throughout America’s history, lawmakers, judges, presidents, and vice presidents have all taken an oath of service before taking office, usually with their hands resting on Bibles.
The tradition dates back to ancient Rome, and was used by colonial administrators in America when it was still a British colony. It’s why there was dissent at the Constitutional Convention around requiring oaths from lawmakers to the nation’s new Congress. Some delegates regarded oaths as an objectionable remnant of British rule in their new nation. Others questioned the need. Founding Father James Wilson said the people’s lawmakers wouldn’t need to swear loyalty to a good government and shouldn’t swear to a bad one.
But when the U.S. Congress met for the first time, its first piece of business was to require legislators to take this oath: “I, [name], do solemnly swear or affirm [as the case may be] that I will support the Constitution of the United States.”
The wording has become more elaborate over time. Today it is “I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
The value of oaths rests on two points: Do the oaths serve a purpose, and what makes them binding?
The oath is a promise made in the presence of something the oath-taker reveres.
Traditionally, this has been the Bible. By placing their hands on this book, lawmakers declare their oath is as important to the them as what they regard as the word of God.
The Constitution, however, makes no reference to the Bible. In fact, the Bible hasn’t always been used to swear in officials. John Quincy Adams took his oath on a law book. Since no Bible could be found as he was hurriedly sworn into office after the death of President McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt simply raised his hand. When Lyndon Johnson was sworn into office on the death of President Kennedy, no Bible could be found on the plane, so Johnson placed his hand on Kennedy’s Catholic missal.
Representatives Keith Ellison, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar have all taken their oaths on copies of the Muslim Qur’an.
Officials also have the option of not taking an oath but simply affirming their pledge to support the Constitution, which is how President Franklin Pierce entered the office.
In 2014, Suzan LeVine took office as Ambassador of Switzerland and Liechtenstein with her hand on a Kindle e-reader displaying the text of the U.S. Constitution.
Legally, any text — or no text— will suffice.
Which brings us back to the original question about Representative Garcia and that comic book. Garcia came to America from Lima, Peru, when he was five years old. He is the former mayor of Long Beach, California, has a PhD in educational policy, and has lectured on public policy at USC.
On January 3, he explained in a tweet, “Will be proudly sworn-in to Congress on the U.S. Constitution. Underneath the Constitution will be 3 items that mean a lot to me personally. A photo of my parents who I lost to covid, my citizenship certificate & an original Superman #1 from the @LibraryCongress.”
Will be proudly sworn-in to Congress on the U.S. Constitution. Underneath the Constitution will be 3 items that mean a lot to me personally. A photo of my parents who I lost to covid, my citizenship certificate & an original Superman #1 from the @librarycongress. 🇺🇸😊 pic.twitter.com/YGW43OLsIp
— Robert Garcia (@RobertGarcia) January 3, 2023
Why the Superman comic? It’s one of the books he used to learn English.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now