Thursday, June 26, 2008

An American Tradition, Universally Understood?

When Pastor Peter Lillback, during the Q&A part of the National Constitution Center program, Washington: Devout or Deist, was confronted by Matthew Goldstein (see Comment from my previous blog) with the fact that there are several presidents who are known not to have added "So help me God" to their respective oaths, Lillback conceded that he was just repeating what he regarded as a "generally understood viewpoint." However, he went on to expand upon what he thought were the special circumstances surrounding Washington's inaugural ceremony in attempt to bolster his assertion that Washington had added "So help me God" to his presidential oath.

In his response, Lillback relied heavily on his observation that Washington was a Virginian, and as such he had likely repeated "ten or twelve oaths in his life," which concluded with the words, "So help me God." This is absolutely true, but only in the sense that all of these oaths took place during the colonial era when there was a congenital union between the English monarchy and the Anglican Church. What Lillback overlooks is that from the time starting with the American Revolution there does not appear to be a single documented instance where George Washington swore to an official oath in the service of our country that included a religious codicil.

We, also, need to consider that the Virginia Constitution of 1776 did not mandate a religious oath; and when it came to the to the Continental Congress, the Articles of Confederation did not even mention an oath as being necessary for its delegates. The United States Constitution does prescribe an oath for the president, but it omits any acknowledgement of a supreme being. This is also true for the legislated oath designated for all federal employees. When on June 1, 1789, President Washington signed An Act to regulate the Time and Manner of administrating certain oaths into law, it simply stated, "I, A. B. do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States." Most importantly, the Constitution also states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States" (Article VI. Section, III).

The first reported instance of Washington swearing to an oath in the post-colonial era occurred as a result of the Continental Congress passing a bill on 3 February 1778 that required all Continental Army officers to sign a certificate to "acknowledge the UNITED STATES of AMERICA, to be Free and Independent and Sovereign States, ... ." Washington signed this certificate without appending "so help me God," even though the legislation passed by the Continental Congress had included an optional use of the words "So help me God" by placing those words outside of the delimiting quotation marks. As can be seen, Washington did not append "So help me God" to his military oath of May 12, 1778.

George Washington signed this oath of allegiance on May 12, 1778 while at Valley Forge. The same document was executed by such others as Von Steuben and Alexander Hamilton. They are on display in the National Archives, Washington, DC. (Courtesy National Archives.)

Pastor Lillback continued with a second point by saying, "In fact, it [saying 'So Help me God' as was done in Virginia] was the American tradition, universally understood, because the word oath implied that you were saying this before God. And the words 'So help me God,' were not adding God to it. God was there when you took an oath. It was saying, I need help to keep what I just promised."

The problem here is that Lillback can only see George Washington as agreeing with his "universal understanding" as to what oaths meant during the colonial era. What this means, of course, is that Lillback has to turn a blind eye to what happened at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In The Godless Constitution, Kramnick and Moore explain what happened this way:

While passionately debated in the new nation, the "no religious test" clause elicited surprisingly little discussion at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention itself. It was introduced by Charles Pinckney, the governor of South Carolina, on August 20, whereupon it was immediately referred to the Committee on Detail without any debate among the delegates. The committee presented its general report on August 30 and made no reference to Pinckney's proposal. Not to be ignored, Pinckney moved it again to the floor. Roger Sherman of Connecticut, the committee chairman, held that the prohibition was unnecessary," the prevailing "liberality" being a sufficient security against such tests. Gouverneur Morris and General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney seconded Governor Pinckney's motion, however. It was then voted on and, according to the Maryland delegate Luther Martin, "adopted by a very great majority of the convention without much debate." No record of the exact vote, but Madison's personal notes of the convention report that North Carolina voted no and that Maryland was divided. According to Luther Martin, "there were some members so unfashionable [his italics] as to think that a belief in the existence of a Deity and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some security for the good conduct of our rulers, and that in a Christian county it would be at least decent to hold some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.

Well might these 'unfashionable' members be surprised at the position taken so easily by the majority at the Constitutional Convention, for eleven of the thirteen states had religious tests for public offices in 1787. Even in Rhode Island, once the most religiously pluralistic and liberal state, where small numbers of Catholics an Jews freely worshipped, only Protestants could vote or hold office. New Hampshire, New Jersey, both Carolinas, Vermont, and Georgia also required officials to be Protestants. Massachusetts and Maryland insisted on belief in the Christian religion as a qualification for office. Pennsylvania required its officials to be Protestants who believed in God and the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments; in Delaware all elected and appointed public officials were required to profess 'faith in God the father, and in Jesus Christ His Holy son, and in the Holy Ghost, One God blessed forevermore.' Several state constitutions also required office holders to acknowledge that God was a 'rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked.'"

What Lillback can't recognize, and what Professor Peter Henriques clearly
explained is this:
If you look at the evidence [as to whether Washington appended anything to his oath], and I don't want to take [more than] a short time, but the evidence for that is surprisingly weak. It's a case where people accept something, pass it on, but the actual evidence for it is not [there], and Washington is strict constructionist. He is not going to change the constitutional oath, at least, not without anyone mentioning it. Indeed the French Ambassador, who was there, and wrote down what he said, and wrote the oath, did not put it in.

The Senate, four days after Washington's Inauguration, passed an oath for Congressmen that specifically took out the words "So help me God" [from the ad hoc oath originally taken by the House members]. I can't imagine they would have taken that out of the oath if George Washington had done it, at least without any comment.

1 comment:

Lindsey Shuman said...

A fascinating post! I am so glad that you have focused on this all-important part of the Washington saga. Great stuff!