POSTSCRIPT / July 10, 2022 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Stop using the Bible in pols’ oath-taking

“Do they still use the Bible to swear in witnesses in court?” FrNongnong”, a Catholic priest tweeting as @iskrukutoy, asked yesterday.

“I suggest that they stop that practice,” he said. “With so many witnesses blatantly perjuring in court, the Bible is being disrespected. Just make them raise their hands and take the oath. Spare the Word of God! Please!”

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. takes the oath as president of the Philippines as his wife First Lady Liza Araneta Marcos looks on. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

What we have seen in court are witnesses being made to raise their right hand and swear to (or affirm) the truth of their testimony, capping their oath with “so help me God”. The mention of God probably makes up for the absence of a Bible to swear on?

Anyway, the opening ecumenical (religion-neutral) prayer usually recited at the start of the court session may inspire all participants to be truthful and well behaved, especially with a strict judge presiding.

FrNongnong’s question turns our attention not so much to court hearings as the swearing-in of presidents and ranking government officials that by tradition is centered on the Bible.

Will an official’s placing his hand on the Bible with his family standing as guarantor stir in him a firm resolve to do his job to the best of his capability, to execute the law, do justice to every man, eschew corruption and abuse of power?

If the answer is No, we agree that we should stop the hypocrisy of using the Bible as a ceremonial prop – especially in the case of elective officials who know that they had cheated (or cheated better than their opponents?) to win the count.

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Much of the rituals we see at inaugurals appear to have been copied from our American latter-day colonizers who have been trying to create a nation in their own image.

The US president’s oath or affirmation goes: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The Philippine president, following Sec. 5, Art. VII, of the Constitution, takes a similar oath or affirmation: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully and conscientiously fulfill my duties as President of the Philippines, preserve and defend its Constitution, execute its laws, do justice to every man, and consecrate myself to the service of the Nation. So help me God.” (In case of affirmation, the last sentence is omitted.)

The Constitution does not require using a Bible to solemnize the ritual, but all inaugurals we’ve seen have had the Holy Book at the center. If someday a brother Muslim is elected president, we assume that he would swear on the Koran.

In 2016, then-incoming President Rodrigo Duterte placed his left hand on a Bible held by his youngest daughter Veronica while behind her stood his three other children as a warranty that he would deliver a clean and competent administration.

In the case of President Bongbong Marcos last June 30, while his right hand was raised, his left hand rested on a Bible placed on a stand. We have been wondering why his wife and three sons did not touch the Book like Veronica carried one six years ago

May a president raise his left hand instead of the right? Seeing no prohibition, we think that he may do so. If the president can place the entire country under martial law, we see no reason why he cannot do the less complicated act of raising his left hand to take an oath.

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We have not seen either a rule that a Bible used must be a family heirloom and not one looking just bought for the occasion. President Joe Biden was sworn in last Jan. 20 as the 46th US president on a 19th-century Bible that has been with his family since the 1800s.

Wikipedia says that Biden has used the five-inch thick Bible with a Celtic cross on its cover every time he took an oath of office – from his first Senate swearing-in in 1973 to his second oath-taking as vice president in 2013.

As for Vice President Kamala Harris, she stacked two Bibles held during her oath-taking by her husband Doug Emhoff. (He led the US delegation that attended the June 30 inauguration of President Marcos.)

One of the Bibles belonged to former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice in the federal high court. The other Bible was owned by Regina Shelton, Harris’ former neighbor in California whom she considers a “second mother.”

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In the US, it used to be that the one administering the oath read it as a question, and modified the wording from the first to the second person, as in, “Do you, George Washington, solemnly swear …” and then requested an affirmation. A response by the president of “I do” or “I swear” completed the oath.

In Manila last June 30, Marcos Jr. was asked by Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo to raise his right hand and repeat after him the oath that the magistrate dictated to him, in phrases, as worded in the Constitution.

This is similar to the current practice in the US where the administrator articulates the oath in the affirmative, and in the first person, so that the president takes the oath by repeating it verbatim.

What used to be a long recitation of the oath by the administrator and its repetition by the president has thus been shortened. Since Harry Truman’s inauguration in 1949, the chief justice has read the oath in phrases, with the president repeating them until the oath was completed.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 10, 2022)

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