Can a U.S. Representative Be Sworn in with a Comic Book?

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...but not always.

George Washington's inauguration, where he took the oath of office on a Bible (Currier & Ives, Bequest of Adele S. Colgate, 1962,

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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.”

Why the Superman comic? It’s one of the books he used to learn English.

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  1. America is steadily returning to its secular roots. Many who founded this countey believed in God; they just couldn’t agree who God was. In their wisdom they strived to make room for all visions of God, include that one named No-God.
    I believe my faith in the Christian God is made smaller when I insist little kids from families with different views pray to Him. And if I were to find Andrew Jackson replaced with John Lennon on the $20 bill with the motto “Imagine there’s no Heaven” it would dismay me. But it would make me realize that people who have different beliefs than I do had grabbed onto power and, in their own wisdom, decided their correct views ought to get inserted everywhere, as they apparently are so weak in faith they need little reminders everywhere they look: on courthouse lawns, in football games, and even the Pledge of Allegiance (which sounds like an oath to me.)

  2. A public official swears he or she will uphold the constitution. Tradition holds that one usually swears with their hand on the Bible. Let us be more intentional in following what it traditional.

  3. I learned to read off the newspaper comics pages. I grew up reading comic books; I maintain they made me a writer! In High School in the 70s I got the re-issue (in a giant size!) of the Superman comic he’s going to use! More power to you, Rep. Garcia!

  4. It seems to me that the swearing-in means nothing if it is represented by just anything in print, unless in the case of emergencies. Give God a break. I’m sure He needs one about now.

  5. The “leaders” in this country from the President on down are so corrupt and infantile they’ve driven this country into the toilet. It just gets worse and worse. Now we have poo-poo head Kevin McCarthy becoming Speaker of the House. Something he wants soooo badly strictly for the power to wreak even MORE havoc on average Americans, and then become President. Aren’t you just thrilled at THAT prospect?

    Per the top question, the answer is unfortunately yes. In Kevin’s case though, I’d dumb it down to a picture book for teething toddlers they’ve just had in their mouths, and freshly slobbered on.

  6. I always said to my boys growing up, ” if I draw a line and tell you not to cross it, you do, then you reply, “. Now what?”” It appears that lack of respect, is still growing in our country. Sad!

  7. America is steadily eliminating God from our governmental bodies – I am sad that America was founded by so many who believed in God and today our country elects those that show little or no regard or respect for many of the beliefs we were founded on. Taking an oath on anything but a religious book that adheres to a Higher Power is sad and also disgraceful that it’s allowed. Perhaps this is why America seems on the path to serfdom. America today is a mess – perhaps because its becoming Godless!!
    This is fertile ground for Fascism and Marxism which seems to be flourishing today. This disrepect may leaf to our downfall. I learned to read Dick & Jane books but wouldn’t use these books to swear on an oath..for public office.

  8. A very good read. If something needs to be held why then not a copy of your Constitution?


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