Every four years, with the president (whether an incumbent or not) about to be sworn in, particular attention is given to what text will accompany the oath of office. Donald Trump was sworn in by SCOTUS Chief Justice John Roberts alongside a Bible that Abraham Lincoln used at his inauguration and another that his mother gave him. Many tend to see these traditions as being a requirement of the ceremony, but that isn’t entirely the case.
Contrary to the opinion of some, there is no requirement for any book to be used to administer the oath of office in the Constitution. In fact, there also isn’t a requirement that the Chief Justice must swear in the president-elect. Both are simply traditions that have been carried down through the years through subsequent inaugurations. The Bible tended to be a custom for many oaths back then, so it was generally used. George Washington was the first to do so, and added the end phrase “so help me God” to the oath, which also isn’t included in the Constitution. Such omissions shouldn’t be surprising, as to include such obligations would have involved a violation of the Article VI protection against religious tests as a prerequisite of holding office. Many states initially had such tests affirmed in their constitutions, but they have since been invalidated by the SCOTUS. Our legal structure is supposed to value the freedom of speech and religion, and including religious prerequisites would violate that standard. In the end, the only thing that public officials, whether federal, state, or local, should do is to uphold the Constitution…which is what the oath focuses on. Only John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce (Adams swore, Pierce affirmed) used law books instead of a religious text.
George Washington was sworn in by Robert Livingston, the Chancellor of New York. Only with the inauguration of Washington’s successor, John Adams, did it become tradition for the Chief Justice to swear in elected presidents.
Such instances reflect once again how much conventional wisdom isn’t always what it seems.