I was told that this may be an interesting premise for a new question. I had the following interaction in the comments of this question.

It always striked me as odd that a secular state like the US would use a religious document as such a key part of a government proceeding. (assuming they still do that)

This was in reference to the issue of swearing on the Bible in the US. A comment to which David Siegel replied

They do still do that. That would be a good separate question. The basic reason is that this procedure was inherited like much US court procedure from England, and for much of its existence the UD had thought of itself not as a secular state, but as a multi-faith religious state with built-in toleration, and only in the 20th C has much of that toleration been actually enforced. Until 1867 states were free to have established religions, and some did. (Mass and Maryland are examples.)

The mere fact that some states actually had established religions, even if it ended 160-odd-years ago is to me incredible. The premise of the US seems to be a country free of a monarchy and established religion seemed to be a big part of what makes the US, the US, or at least a big part of how it is sold to foreigners wanting to live there.

So the idea that the US for a certain part of it's history did not think of itself as a secular state, but a multi-faith, tolerant state seems a very intriguing one. Also it seems so completely antithetical to how it is perceived today (Not the tolerant part, but the multi-faith part).

So back to the issue at hand. If we accept that the US has moved away from the idea of a multi-faith state and indeed into a secular one, how are these vestiges of the old system still enforced or defended?

  • See also the court justifications given for upholding things like "In God We Trust" on our currency and prayer sessions at the start of local government functions. Things like holding "God" is very generic and common to many religions, and so not specific enough to be deemed a constitutional problem; that we were always a Christian nation and it's intrinsic to our culture and history, and there's nothing wrong with acknowledging and respecting culture and history; etc. tend to come up. Apr 12, 2021 at 9:59

1 Answer 1


You don’t have to swear

Witnesses are given the option to swear (technically take an oath) or to affirm, which has no religious connotations. You also don’t actually swear on a Bible if you do swear. For example .

The US is a very religious state

is a secular state - it prohibits religious clothing (hijabs, crucifixes etc.) in schools.

The (specifically England) has an official state religion (Anglican) but religion is far less prevalent in politics or society than it is in the US. For example, outside of a place of worship, who your mother is sleeping with is a far more acceptable topic of conversation than what her religious beliefs are. Which is not to say it actually is an acceptable topic of conversation, just that it’s more acceptable than religion.

elected its first openly atheist Prime Minister in 1983.

The US was not founded on the idea that there shouldn’t be established religion, just that there shouldn’t be a state religion - that is, a church backed by the power of the government. Many of the early settlers were fleeing religious prosecution from state religions.

Nevertheless, it was never the intention to exclude religion from politics. Indeed, religion in the US influences politics to a much greater degree than it does in most European or Anglophone countries.

  • Even the link you provided to the Anglican church says it the established church of England, not the United Kingdom. In Scotland, for example, the national church of the country is Church of Scotland which, significantly, (and unlike the Anglican church) is NOT controlled by the state. Apr 12, 2021 at 12:36
  • In practice, I don't know how you even could separate religion and politics completely. Religion makes moral arguments, and your morality determines your politics. They seem inextricably linked.
    – Ryan_L
    Apr 12, 2021 at 15:47
  • "The US was not founded on the idea that there shouldn’t be established religion," The First Amendment to the Bill of Rights (1791), the bar on religious tests in the 1789 Constitution (Article I), and the commentary on the Treaty of Tripoli would all argue otherwise.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 12, 2021 at 21:56
  • An "established" religion is a religion backed by the state, that is what the establishment clause of the First Amendment forbids the federal government to do Apr 12, 2021 at 21:56
  • 2
    @ohwilleke Yes, but until the 14th amendment in the 1860s that did not prohibit state establishments of religion. If anything a major purpose of the establishment clause was to protect state establishments against an overriding Federal established religion. Mass and Maryland both had established religions at the time the bill of rights was ratified. Apr 12, 2021 at 21:59

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