This week, as members of the 113th Congress were sworn in, Representative Kyrsten Sinema (D - Ariz.) drew attention as she placed her hand over a copy of the United States Constitution, instead of the Holy Bible. The last time this change of pace occurred was in 2007 when Keith Ellison (D - Minn.) requested to be sworn in using the Quran.
Raised a Mormon and a graduate of Brigham Young University, religion has been a significant part of Sinema’s life. Known to quote the phrase that Americans are entitled to “freedom of religion and freedom from religion,” some believe she's actually an an atheist. When asked, she has responded that she prefers a secular approach to government. Perhaps she believes in the enforcement of the separation of church and state, and doesn’t think there should be an unofficial religious test for public office.
There is a tendency for Americans to take some parts of our governing documents more literally than others. The separation of church and state is often neglected, clearly shown by the fact that it is used in many government ceremonies. Former Governor Mitt Romney's campaign was laden with overlap between the two. Maybe Sinema feels that it is her responsibility to steer us away from this overlap.
Although the Bible is traditionally used in swearing in ceremonies, does it really make sense? Our nation was founded on Christian values, but we are a secular state. It seems legitimate that elected officials be sworn in using the Constitution, as it is their ultimate model for governance. As a diverse country, Americans subscribe to a variety of beliefs, but the Constitution is something we all value.
In addition to tradition, the swearing ceremony serves as a reminder of the promises our representatives and government officials make to the American people. It is admirable for a congresswoman to want to be sworn in over something that is meaningful to her, if religion is not.
The whole point of our government is for those who are elected to represent their constituents. A Pew Research Poll released in October 2012 found that one in five adult Americans (19.6%) have no religious affiliation. Only 6% of the population, however, identifies as atheist or agnostic, meaning there are millions of people in America who are just like Sinema, who do not feel compelled to identify themselves in such terms.
The Huffington Post pointed out that the non-religious community feared they had lost their voice when the only atheist in Congress, Pete Stark (D - Calif.) lost his seat in this past election. Sinema may be who this community needs: a non-religious and purely secular leader.
I commend Sinema for choosing the Constitution over the Bible, even if it did cause a stir. In an increasingly diverse Congress, this is bound to happen more in the future. Sinema’s actions earlier this week remind us that her religion, or lack thereof, is unrelated to the oath she took to serve in the House of Representatives.