Why Did Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine Take His Oath of Office on a Casual Stack of Nine Bibles?

Photo illustration of a hand over a stack of Bibles.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by artisteer/iStock/Getty Images Plus, robynmaciStock/Getty Images Plus, and gutaperiStock/Getty Images Plus.

Although the Constitution does not require it, the vast majority of elected officials in the United States place their hands on a Bible as they take the oath of office. This year’s congressional class made headlines with its unusually diverse selection of swearing-in materials, including a law book, a Buddhist text called the Sutra of Golden Light, and the Quran.* But while lawmakers are free to choose any text that is meaningful to them, few have had the courage to break tradition by choosing not just a different book than is generally expected, but many, many more books.

By this measure, Ohio’s new governor, Mike DeWine, is a truly groundbreaking legislator. DeWine was sworn into office at 12:01 a.m. on Monday with not just one Bible, but nine. The brief ceremony took place at his home outside Dayton, and it was a family affair. His son, an Ohio Supreme Court justice, administered the oath. His granddaughter sang a hymn. And his wife, Fran, held the towering stack of Bibles for him while he took the oath. Lift with your legs, Fran.

DeWine didn’t pull this stunt merely to show off. (Anyway, Jesus was a big fan of conspicuous displays of piety.) The DeWines have said they will distribute seven of the Bibles to their children, which is nice. Each of the Bibles had a special family meaning, including one that belonged to Mike DeWine’s great-grandmother and a New Testament the family acquired years ago in Jerusalem. And to be fair, the mere fact that the DeWines own nine Bibles is not strange. The average American household has three Bibles, and it’s not at all uncommon for devout believers to own many more. What is unusual is putting them all in a teetering stack, forcing your wife to lift that stack as you are sworn into office, and then issuing a press release about it. In that context, this is a tremendous number of Bibles!

Credit where it’s due: Swearing on a literal stack of Bibles is a next-level move for a politician. DeWine makes Donald Trump, who swore on two Bibles at his 2017 inauguration, look like an utter chump who is too poor to own nine Bibles and too weak to lift them. As one Twitter user put it, it’s “the ‘stuffing an entire eggplant down your leather pants’ of conservative political showmanship.” And it seems to have paid off in publicity. The holy tower has been covered by the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Christian Post, and Fox News, among others.

Who am I to question Mike DeWine, the governor of a large Midwestern state who also owns at least nine Bibles? Still, allow me to register some concerns. No one loves a slippery-slope argument as much a conservative, so I hope this warning is taken seriously: DeWine’s power move portends an arms race in civil-religious posturing that I’m not sure we’re prepared for as a culture. Must true Americans soon fly nine American flags outside of their homes? At sporting events, will we stand for nine national anthems in a row?

On the other hand, taking something good and making it so huge as to become grotesque and unwieldy is kind of America’s signature move. This is the land of not just the Big Gulp, but the 1.5-liter X-Treme Gulp. We brought you the six-blade razor, monster trucks, the Mall of America, and Lenny Kravitz’s scarf. We have megachurches galore, a theme park with a life-size Noah’s Ark, at least two 190-foot crosses, and the self-declared world’s largest Bible. In fact, the only thing more surprising than a nine-Bible swearing-in is that it took this long for someone to do it.

*Correction, Jan. 18, 2019: An earlier version of this article misstated which book Rep. Rashida Tlaib used for her swearing-in ceremony. She used a personal copy of the Quran, not Thomas Jefferson’s copy.