D.H.: I'm fascinated with the idea of binding one's word to something most sacred and obligatory upon one's conscience.
Hey D.H. I'm right with you. I can't see the significance of swearing an oath on any kind of sacred text, or to any kind of god. I've heard non-believers say that we should swear oaths on the Constitution, but that's just transferring religious rituals to a secular document. The oath swearing in a courtroom is certainly grounded in religious beliefs.
The North Carolina decision does note some interesting history with regard to the oath. According to the author, J. Ridgeway, in early English common law "infidels" could not be sworn as they were "perpetui inimici [perpetual enemy]; for, between them, as with the devils, whose subjects they be, and the Christian, there is perpetual hostility" (7). Ridgeway also notes that prior to the 18th century, when perjury statutes were first enacted, there was no criminal penalty for perjury. "Perjury, being viewed as the sin of false witness and contempt of God, was an ecclesiastical matter and punishment, as alluded to in the imprecation clause of oaths, was divine" (p. 11, n.29).
But why include the oath at all? Why not simply expect, demand: when testifying in Court, tell the truth. Why include any element of sacred obligation or holy writ? How can any Court determine the depth of commitment or actual fidelity of any person to any document?
I think it is certainly necessary to require a statement of some kind, both for the transcripts, and to ensure that the witness understands the expectations the court holds for truthful representation. Culturally, do most Americans know that when they sit on a witness stand they are expected to tell the truth? Probably. But culturally most Americans know that when they are arrested they have the right to remain silent and a right to an attorney, but their Miranda
rights are still read to them.