Religious diversity in Congress expands list of holy texts

The Bible and Torah, for years the standard religious texts used to swear in members of Congress, have been joined by the Constitution, the Koran — and, Thursday, for the first time ever, the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a newly elected congresswoman from Hawaii, and the first Hindu to serve, brought her own book with her as she took part in a ceremonial swearing-in with House Speaker John A. Boehner.

The Democrat, who joined Rep. Tammy Duckworth as the first female combat veterans to be in Congress, used the Hindu holy book that she had with her while serving in Iraq.

“I chose to take the oath of office with my personal copy of the Bhagavad-Gita because its teachings have inspired me to strive to be a servant-leader, dedicating my life in the service of others and to my country,” she said.

Her election underscores the growing religious diversity in Congress, where the first Muslim was sworn in six years ago on a Koran, and the first Buddhist senator took office Thursday.

As religions have expanded, so have the options for swearing-in ceremonies.

Both House and Senate lawmakers are officially sworn in on their chamber floors, and then have ceremonial swearings-in for keepsake photos afterward. Members are not required to hold any text at all, merely to raise their right hand and swear — but many do hold something, particularly during the ceremonial oath.

The Library of Congress even provides books to House members who don’t bring their own, and lawmakers can pick them off a table when they enter the ornate room for a one-on-one ceremonial oath with Mr. Boehner.

On Thursday they had nine options: Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, the Torah, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, Hindu Vedas, an ornate box holding Buddhist Sutras, and copies of the U.S. Constitution.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said the religious shift has been dramatic over the past five decades, with Protestants dropping from nearly 400 in the House and Senate combined in the 1961-1962 Congress to about 300 now — still a majority, but far less dominant.

Catholics have risen from 100 to more than 160, Mormons have more than doubled from 7 to 15, and there are now three Buddhists, two Muslims, one Hindu and one unaffiliated.

The “unaffiliated” lawmaker is Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona Democrat, who is claimed by atheists as one of their own, but whose office said she doesn’t identify that way.

She didn’t hold any text for the official swearing-in on the House floor, and did not take part in a ceremonial oath with Mr. Boehner.

“I already got sworn in — and it was glorious,” she told The Washington Times.

Neither the House historian, nor the chaplain’s office keeps track of which texts are used for ceremonies, but an informal survey on Thursday showed that Bibles still dominate. A number of lawmakers, though, opted for the Constitution or to forgo any text, and instead shook hands with Mr. Boehner.

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