MARTIN: Oaths and the Bible: What Would Jesus Do?
One of the biggest mistakes I ever made had to do with oath-taking.
I was the new secretary of the University of North Carolina. One of my duties was to gather the Bibles that the Board of Governors would use for its swearing-in ceremonies. Someone mentioned that we should make provision for former state Sen. Marshall Rauch, who is Jewish. I remember saying that we need not worry because Rauch had been "sworn in" numerous times and would know what to do.
I was wrong. When the time came for the swearing in, Rauch quietly and politely said that he could not in good conscience swear on the Bible, but would need to use the Jewish Holy Scriptures.
We had to postpone his swearing-in until the next meeting when we had a copy of the proper book. (For more about Rauch's amazing career in business and politics, see "Success Is a Team Sport: The Marshall Rauch Family Story" by Ned Cline.)
Later, I bought a personal copy of the Jewish Holy Scriptures to be sure I would not get caught short again.
This story came back to me during the past few weeks, when several news items brought up questions about the relationship between the Bible and oath-taking:
-- A new Muslim member of the U.S. Congress announced that he would use the Quran when he took his oath of office. He quickly faced a flurry of criticism, followed by a passionate debate about the place of the Bible -- and the Quran -- in American government.
-- The North Carolina Court of Appeals overruled a lower court that had thrown out a lawsuit brought by a Muslim woman who was not allowed to use the Quran when she was sworn in as a witness in court.
-- State Sen. Ellie Kinnaird introduced a bill that would allow anyone taking an oath to use "any text sacred to the party's religious faith."
All this activity started me wondering about whether there was any appropriate place for any religious text in our courtrooms and governmental ceremonies. George Washington took his oath of office on the Bible, and it has been part of American governmental oath-taking from the beginning. But our courts have shown that, when it comes to questions of separation of church and state, they are willing to set aside hundreds of years of customary practice.
I looked in Chapter 11 of the North Carolina General Statutes to see what our laws say about oath-taking and the Bible. I was taken aback by the strong religious tone of the language. It could have come from Leviticus in the Old Testament. Here is a sample:
"Whereas, lawful oaths for discovery of truth and establishing right are necessary and highly conducive to the important end of good government; and being most solemn appeals to Almighty God, as the omniscient witness of truth and the just and omnipotent avenger of falsehood, and whereas, lawful affirmations for the discovery of truth and establishing right are necessary and highly conducive to the important end of good government, therefore, such oaths and affirmations ought to be taken and administered with the utmost solemnity."
The law does require the use of the "Holy Scriptures," or as it later says, the "Holy Gospel." The law provides an exception for those, who for reasons of conscience, cannot swear in this manner. It permits them to simply "affirm" rather than to "swear on the Bible."
Perhaps, when making this kind of affirmation, a person can, even under the current law, hold on to any book, religious or otherwise, that he or she chooses.
What would Jesus say about all this?
I found one answer a couple of weeks ago as our Sunday School class studied the book of Matthew, which quotes Jesus as follows: "Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all "
This passage has to make us ask why we insist on swearing on a book that reports Jesus' specific direction not to swear at all.
D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs on Sundays at 5 p.m.
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