Chief Justice Roberts, in a now much-discussed moment, flubbed a line in the ceremony, and President Obama did so as well.
Photo: a reader wants me to put more pictures into my blog. Here's one.
I was mildly put off by the stumble, but thought nothing else over it than, "Somebody's going to want a do-over."
The oath is an extremely ancient human phenomenon, begun in a time when writing a contract was an exception rather than a rule. An oath is a promise, and traditionally the swearer's promise is backed by his or her willingness to be punished by a god if he or she goes back on it.
This type of oath was commonplace in ancient Greece. The Olympian gods commonly swore on the River Styx, which, being the River of Death, was anathema to them. Mortals swore by Zeus, the god of public civilized life, asking to be struck by lightning if they broke their promise.
The child's phrase "Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye" is a direct transposition of ancient oath formulas.
The oath thus takes on a religious, magical significance for some people, even Christians, despite Jesus' command not to swear at all (Matthew 5:34), letting "Your yes be yes and your no be no." Anything more, he says, is "of evil."
For some strange reason, we still believe that swearing on a Bible has some kind of power, despite the founder of Christianity's direct prohibition of the practice of oaths.
One other factor in the flub also relates to traditional religion: the anxiety of liminality and the desire for transitions to be smooth and under control.
I have written before (and before that) about how humans get anxious when things change-- at times such as New Year's, we can get downright panicky. Our built-in defense mechanism is to create processes that we can control (unlike the transition itself), and thereby console ourselves that everything's going to be okay (deep breath!).
The swearing-in thus has become the focal point of the inauguration, because it is the observed moment of transition between president-elect and president. We want it to go well, because if it doesn't, then maybe the transition didn't go well, and that chaos will bleed into regular time.
In fact, the word inauguration refers to a priestly office in Roman religion: an augur would survey the supernatural realm for omens of the future, often by inspecting the organs of a newly-sacrificed animal, or by scanning the skies for flights of birds.
A favorable reading meant that the future "augured" well.
So no, it didn't surprise me that someone thought that Obama's presidency didn't "take" when he didn't say the words exactly, despite his clear intention to do exactly what the oath says.
But it does astonish me that in this day and age, when so many people put so much store by the rational, the logical, the visible, and the scientifically reproducible, that anyone would care that one word in a set of words was said out of order.
Human beings are religious creatures. We believe in magic, miracles, and the world beyond, even if we don't acknowledge it. I don't think belief is a bad thing. After all, who would be so arrogant as to pretend that or he or she knows so much about the universe as to be able to say, "This is how far the universe goes and no farther?"
If we're going to have oaths, we might as well acknowledge we're not so scientific after all.