Taking an oath involves an oral statement, often sworn on a Bible or other sacred object, in which a person promises to act in a certain way, accomplish a certain thing, or make efforts to achieve a certain goal. An oath is by definition a sworn promise, which means that taking an oath necessarily involves some sort of public pledge. There are many different types of oaths, and while the general form of oath-taking is constant, specific details may vary depending on the circumstances.
In law, oaths are commonly used to validate court testimony and ensure honesty in court dealings. A witness appearing in almost any courtroom in the world must take an oath that anything said will be true. This kind of an oath is generally taken by raising the right hand, laying the left hand on a Bible or other sacred text or sometimes over one’s heart, and facing the judge. The judge will then read the oath, and the witness must repeat.
Oaths typically begin with a recitation of the involved person’s name, then state a promise or affirmation and invoke some sort of higher power or authority. A sample oath following this pattern would be as follows: “I, John Doe, do swear or affirm that the testimony I give today will be the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” Similar oaths requiring honesty, confidentiality, and fair dealing are typically also given to jurors, court reporters, interpreters, and court bailiffs.
The point of an oath in court is to ensure an atmosphere of justice and honesty. Refusing to take an oath will generally result in a person being ejected from the courtroom or barred from participating in proceedings. Breaking an oath can subject a person to perjury and contempt of court charges. In most places, these are serious crimes punishable by fine and, commonly, jail time.
Not all oaths relate to trials, however, and not all are legally binding in the way that a courtroom oath is. Many oaths are designed to be ceremonial or personally binding, even if they have no real legal weight. An oath of office is a familiar example.
The steps required to take an oath of office are similar to those required for a courtroom oath. It must be made in public and must be framed as a sworn assertion. Usually, oaths of office are tailored to the tasks and undertakings particular to the job being assumed. Taking an oath is often required before members of parliament, senators, congressmen, prime ministers, and presidents can begin their jobs.
In their oaths, the officials usually swear to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, to always uphold the laws of the land, to seek after the best interests of the people, and other affirmations as appropriate. Taking an oath of this sort is a promise to do certain things, but it is not a contract. An official cannot usually be unseated for breaking his oath. He can be unseated, however, if in breaking the oath, the official subsequently also broke defined laws, as is often the case.
Most of the time, taking an oath on a voluntary, non-court basis is more of a pledge and personal or professional standard than it is a legal obligation. The Hippocratic oath in medicine, oaths of allegiance or citizenship, and the Boy Scout oath are examples of oaths with very specific subject matter. Taking an oath in any of these categories is always public and is usually considered a solemn affair, but is not typically enforceable at law. A lot of times, these sorts of oaths can be taken by entire groups at a time, and need not be recited individually.