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‘Every important date is in there’: Biden to take oath on his family Bible

Joe Biden places his hand on the Biden family Bible as he takes the oath of office as vice president in 2013.
Joe Biden places his hand on the Biden family Bible, held by his wife, Jill, as he takes the oath of office as vice president in 2013.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will take their oaths of office Wednesday using Bibles that are laden with personal meaning, writing new chapters in a long-running American tradition — and one that appears nowhere in law.

The Constitution does not require the use of a specific text for swearing-in ceremonies and specifies only the wording of the president’s oath. That wording does not include the phrase “so help me God,” but every modern president has appended it to his oath, and most have chosen symbolically significant Bibles for their inaugurations.

That includes Biden, who plans to use the same family Bible that he chose for his two swearing-in ceremonies as vice president and the seven oaths he took as senator from Delaware.

The tome, which is several inches thick and which Biden’s late son, Beau, also used when he was sworn in as Delaware attorney general, has been a family heirloom since 1893, and “every important date is in there,” Biden told late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert last month.

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“Why is your Bible bigger than mine? Do you have more Jesus than I do?” quipped Colbert, who, like Biden, is a practicing Roman Catholic.

Biden’s use of his family Bible underscores the prominent role that his faith has played in his personal and professional lives — and will continue to do so as he becomes only the second Catholic president in history, after John F. Kennedy Jr.

After half a century as a senator and vice president, Biden assumes the presidency at a time when the country faces health, economic and societal crises.

He follows in the tradition of many other presidents who used family-owned Bibles to take their oaths, including Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

Some have had their Bibles opened to personally relevant passages during their ceremonies. Bill Clinton, for example, chose Isaiah 58:12 — which urges the devout to be a “repairer of the breach” — for his second inauguration after a first term marked by political fights with conservatives.

Others took their oaths on closed Bibles, including Kennedy, who in 1961 used his family’s century-old tome with a large cross on the front, similar to Biden’s.

The tradition of using a Bible dates as far back as the presidency itself; the holy book used by George Washington later went on display at the Smithsonian Institution on loan from the Masonic lodge that provided it in 1789. Washington’s Bible was later used for the oaths by Warren G. Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.

As he exits the White House President Trump is disrupting many of the most critical and cherished traditions of handing power from one president to another.

But not every president has used a Bible. Theodore Roosevelt took his 1901 oath without one after the death of William McKinley, while John Quincy Adams used a law book in 1825, according to his own account.

Some have employed multiple Bibles during their ceremonies: Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump chose to use, among others, the copy that Abraham Lincoln used in 1861.

Harris plans to do the same for her vice presidential oath, using a Bible owned by a close family friend and one that belonged to the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Harris has spoken of her admiration of Marshall, a fellow Howard University graduate and trailblazer in government as the high court’s first African American justice.

“When I raise my right hand and take the oath of office tomorrow, I carry with me two heroes who’d speak up for the voiceless and help those in need,” Harris tweeted Tuesday, referring to Marshall and friend Regina Shelton, whose Bible she swore on when becoming attorney general of California and later senator.

Harris, who attended both Baptist and Hindu services as a child, worships as a Baptist as an adult.

Introducing “Covering Kamala Harris,” a new political beat from the Los Angeles Times.

While U.S. lawmakers have typically used Bibles for their oaths, some have chosen alternatives that reflect their religious diversity.

Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress, in 2007 used a Koran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson, prompting objections from some Christian conservatives.

Jefferson’s Koran made a return in 2019 at the swearing-in ceremony of Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) chose a Hebrew Bible in 2005 to reflect her Jewish faith. Newly elected incoming Georgia Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff, who is also Jewish and who will be sworn in Wednesday, plans to use Hebrew scripture belonging to Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, an ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement.

Former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) opted for the Bhagavad Gita in 2013 after becoming the first Hindu elected to Congress.

And Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the only member of the current Congress who identifies as “religiously unaffiliated,” took her oath on the Constitution in 2018.


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