Monday, June 30, 2008

In Defense of "So Help me God"

In recent tradition, the words "so help me God" have been added to the oath taken by the incoming President of the United States, with many assuming that this addition goes back to the inauguration of George Washington. Whether this is true has been challenged by secularists - fellow American Creation contributor Ray Soller being one of the leaders in this fight.

The presidential oath according to the United States Constitution reads as follows:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

The Most Important Question

If a President were required to utter words outside of the constitutionally prescribed oath - words including "so help me God" - then I would agree with Mr. Soller and others that the Constitution has been transgressed.

However, if a President - by his own choice - adds "so help me God" to the oath, he (and, in the future, she) is well within his rights to do so. No secularist has the right to tell an incoming President that he can't ask for God's help in adhering to the oath of office.

To tell an incoming President that he can't add "so help me God" to the oath is a clear infringement of that President's freedom of speech. The same applies, by the way, if a President were to say "so help me, Allah" or "so help me, America" or "so help me, Harvey" (remember the Jimmy Stewart movie?).

A President has the right to add whatever words he wishes to the end of the oath. Why? Because the oath has already been administered.

Did George Washington say "So Help me God"?

There is no way to scentifically prove whether Washington added "so help me God" to his inaugural oath, because there's no way any of us can directly observe Washington's inauguration. Until time travel is invented, we're out of luck! Scientific proof is, after all, based on observation.

Can we historically prove it? Mr. Soller and others have done a great job in showing that no contemporaneous account exists to prove that Washington added "so help me God" to the oath, other than that of then six-year old Washington Irving. (I personally think they are wrong to so cavalierly dismiss Irving's credibility, but I'll set that aside for now).

However, one of the most disturbing trends in our postmodern, media-saturated society is that we have frankly become much too cynical. We call everything into question that doesn't fit with our postmodern worldview and for which we don't have multiple attestation -- attestation, that is, from sources that we're comfortable with.

Now, I'm all for prudence and healty skepticism. But we've gone to ridiculous extremes in recent years, as Australian scholar Keith Windschuttle so articulately points out in The Killing of History.

If we need contemporaneous, on-the-spot validation for everything, then we've just undermined virtually all that we know from ancient, medieval, and early modern history. For instance, remember that the earliest biography of Alexander the Great was written 400 years after the man's death!

The truth is that we have a claim that Washington added "so help me God" to the oath. Yes, the claim emerged 60 years later - but the claim comes from someone who was present at the event.

Is the claim consistent with what President Washington did at the inauguration? The answer is yes. Washington took the oath on the Bible. That is not disputed, and (I would add) not required under the Constitution. What's more, Washington very explicitly called on the nation to pray during his inaugural address.

Here's what Washington said of God, prayer, and the nation in his First Inaugural:

" would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency..."

I find it interesting that secularists so often challenge things like whether Washington was an "orthodox" Christian or whether he actually added "so help me God" to the oath. These serve to distract from some rather clear FACTS about George Washington, namely that he:

  • Devoutly believed in God

  • Believed in prayer

  • Called on the nation to pray and give homage to God

  • Considered the United States "bound to acknowledge and adore" God

This just scratches the surface, but these can hardly be considered the sentiments of a secularist or a Deist.

So WHAT if you prove somehow (and, by the way, you can't) that Washington didn't say "so help me God" at the end of the presidential oath. You've only proven a technicality.

The record is clear. George Washington believed in God and was encouraging all Americans to likewise believe in and submit to God. Whether the secularists today are comfortable with this is immaterial.

What's more, the tradition of adding "so help me God" to the presidential oath will likely continue. Not so much because George Washington did it. Even if Mr. Soller and others are successful in "proving" that Washington didn't say it, the tradition will likely continue. Why? Because virtually all of our Presidents have believed in God. And it's not likely that the American people will elect an atheist to the highest office of the land anytime soon.


Addendum: Allow me to add (in light of some of the comments) that I agree enough doubt has been raised by those questioning the "so help me God" tradition that historians and the US government should acknowledge the dispute over when the "so help me God" tradition began.

I will further accept that the Chief Justice (or whichever court official administering the oath) should stick to the constitutionally prescribed oath. The only exception to this would be IF the incoming President expresses his or her plans to add "so help me God" (or "so help me Allah" or whatever) to the oath. In that event, I have no problem with the Chief Justice accommodating the incoming President. The only problem would be if the incoming President chose to remove portions from the oath.

All that having been said, at this point, "so help me God" has become a part of the tradition, and a majority of the American people expect and are comfortable with the President saying those words. It's unlikely that the American people will elect an atheist to the presidency anytime soon.


Brad Hart said...

A very good post, Brian. Brace yourself for the onslaught that I see coming your way!

BTW, at the very beginning of your post you wrote:

"If a President were required to utter words outside of the constitutionally prescribed oath - words including "so help me God" - then I would agree with Mr. Soller and others that the Constitution has been transgressed."

With this in mind, check out this youtube clip of FDR's inauguration and ask yourself, "Is he being required to say, 'So help me God'?"
I think so. Here is the link:

And here is Ronald Reagan's Oath of Office:

Sounds to me like the Chief Justices are requiring this of the presidents.

And Clinton's:

***On a personal note, I really don't care if a president says "So help me God" or not,, but I do think it is interesting that it is being inserted into the oath with such gusto.

bpabbott said...

Personally, I don't think it is of principle importance what Washington said. Rather, I think it important that so many are repeating a lie.

That doesn't necessarily make them liars ... unless they are aware that there is no evidence of the claim.

HIstory is not like religion, we don't take claims on faith. Evidence is required before claims are accepted.

As there is no contemporary testimony (by adults) respecting the claim that GW appended the words in question, I don't see how it is even acceptable to consider the treating the claim as being historical.

Returning to why so many are repeating a lie? ... what is the motive to lie about the man who "never told a lie"?

bpabbott said...

Brian wrote: "I find it interesting that secularists so often challenge things like whether Washington was an "orthodox" Christian or whether he actually added "so help me God" to the oath."

That is a rather disingenuous corner to paint secularists into.

Historic accuracy is important. :-)

Do you intend to imply that favoring historic accuracy a uniquely secular characteristic?

Do you intend to imply that, as a man of faith, GW would be quick to fabricate history if it served his faith? :-(

Is it really necessary choose between one's religion and supporting an accurate historic record? :-(

Beyond honesty what other principles should be sacrificed for an individuals religion? :-(

p.s. I'm admittedly being a bit over the top so as to make Brad appear prophetic ;-)

Brad Hart said...

I think that these little nuances of history are, in the end, important. It is the job of the historian to exhaust all possibilities when it comes to the historical record. While this may be a seemingly irrelevant issue -- after all, nobody is going to live or die over which way the Washington saga goes -- it is still important for historians to be as honest as possible with the historical record. To interject a small fable or to remove a small truth is worse than plagiarism. Historians are the voices of the past, and as such they have a duty to be as honest as they can with the sources available.

If it turns out that Mr. Soller is right and that there are no primary accounts of Washington closing his oath of office with, "So help me God," then historians have a duty to expose that truth. However, if the record suggests that such a story is true, and the historian does not proclaim its validity, then he/she has committed the unpardonable sin of violating the true purpose of history.

Now, when an event -- like the Washington inauguration -- proves difficult to resolve with 100% accuracy, it is my opinion that the true historian has a duty to remain as neutral as possible. Even if one personally hopes for a particular outcome, it is irresponsible to ignore the argument of the opposition.

Then again, this rant of mine may be simply showing my bias as a moderate centrist when it comes to most issues.

Explicit Atheist said...

There is a first hand account of George Washington's oath rectitation. It was written in French by Comte de Moustier, the French minister, who stood on the balcony with GW. The problem is that Comte de Moustier quotes the oath recitation, details what happens immediately thereafter, and his account contradicts the claim from Washington Irving which was published long after every eyewiteness was dead.

Washington Irving doesn't say he heard GW say "So help me God". He was standing too far away to hear what GW said (based on where Reverend Griswold places him, Griswold is the only known source of the claim that Washington Irving witnessed the ceremony). Washington Irving doesn't cite anyone or any source for this claim. He just declares that GW said that.

Common sense says that Comte de Moustier's account is the more accurate historical account, especially since his account is the only known contemporaneous, eyewiteness quotation of the oath recitation.

So why is it that it is Washington Irving's contradictory account that becomes our official history as presented by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies web site and other authoratitive government web sites? We keep pointing this discrepancy out to them, we cite expert historians who assert that they don't think GW appended that phrase, but we get no response. Indeed, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies web site, for over a year, had a "So help me God" video featuring a Senate Historical staff member claiming that ALL presidents followed GW's "precedent" of appending "So help me God" to the oath of office. There is literally no historical evidence for this astonishing claim. Could it be that this is more about propaganda than history? That sure is what it looks like to me.

Alan Peck said...

Sorry, but I am an ancient historian so it would be stupid for me to comment on the validity of the "So help me God" controversy. However, as an ancient historian, I do regularly encounter an argument that is very familiar to this one.

As a scholar of ancient Greek history, I am regularly asked about the Spartan battle at Thermopylae, specifically as to some of the verbal exchanges between the Persian and Spartan soldiers. One common story, that is told over and over again, is that the Persians threatened the Spartans by stating, "We will blanket the skies with our arrows," to which the Spartans replied, "Then we shall have our battle in the shade." Herodotus, the primary source for this encounter, has a terrible habit of embellishing his accounts on a regular basis, making this exchange virtually impossible to prove.

With that said, I believe that Brad Hart is right to suggest taking an objective look at the available sources, and may I add, the credibility of those said sources. If we took every account at face value, then we would be forced to accept the cherry tree fable, the Spartan "battle in the shade" fable, etc.

My advise to you all (and again, I am in the ancient world so I am not questioning any of your scholarly commentaries on this time period) would be to ignore the hearsay, the secondary sources, the speculation, etc., and focus exclusively on the primary accounts, along with their credibility. More importantly, I would suggest that you all drop your interest in early American history and convert to the MUCH more interesting world of the ancients! =)

Alan Peck said...

Sorry to post again, but Explicit Atheist posted before I got to read it. If what E.A. says is true, then I think there is a serious reason to label the "So help me God" saga as a legend and not historical.

Brian Tubbs said...

Hey Alan, I would be curious to hear your thoughts about Windschuttle and his book "The Killing of History."

While I'll never drop my love for early American history - sorry :-) - I will admit that ancient history is incredibly interesting as well. I love studying the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, etc. I just wish I had more time to study them and more money to buy all the cool books and video documentaries out there on those civilizations.

Brian Tubbs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Tubbs said...

Just so everyone knows...I think that enough questions and doubts have been raised concerning the "so help me God" tradition that the DISPUTE should be acknowledged by historians and by the US government...AND.. that Chief Justices should either stop pressing Presidents to say "so help me God" or should ask ahead of time if the President wishes to add those words.

I also agree that it's a stretch to say that every President after GW said "so help me God." That's an assumption that's been made and repeatedly asserted. It MAY be true, but it can't be proved.

You see???? I can be reasonable. :-)

Explicit Atheist said...

The Hoover library has a recording of President Hoover reciting his oath of office without "So help me God" thus disproving the far-fetched claim that all presidents appended that phrase. I call it a far-fetched claim because we have first hand eyewitness accounts of the oath ceremonies and they don't make any mention "so help me God" even though some of those accounts quote the oath and describe what happens immediately afterwards (including what the president said/did such as sit down, shake so and so's hand, say "I swear" or "I do", hug his wife, etc.). The first definitive historical use of that phrase for a presidential oath of office appears to be by Jefferson Davis.

The problem here is not what the presidents say after (or before) their oath recitation. The problem here is that our presidents and there spokespeople keep claiming to be following a precedent that was followed by all, or even most, presidents since GW by appending that phrase to the presidential oath recitation. The problem here is also that the judges have been modifying the constitutional oath repeatedly in the last half of the 20th century. The problem here is also that Rehnquist and Scalia both cited GW appending "so help me God" in Supreme Court opinions when arguing in defense of establishment of monotheism. Now I don't think a president saying shmG after their oath of office recitation is completed has violated the Establishment Clause (EC), but we nevertheless can't dismiss this as irrelevant to that larger dispute because of those references to GW and the other presidents appending that phrase in opinions of those two Supreme Court judges.

bpabbott said...

Brad: "It MAY be true, but it can't be proved."

I'm never sure what to make of those words, but we encounter them quite often.

There's the obvious admission that, even in the absence of evidence, the claim might be true.

Then there's the my favorite interpretation: No falsehood can be proved. For example: "I'm more brilliant than Einstein and Newton combined!"

I'm certain that can't be proven, because I am *not*! ;-)

In this instance we can ask the framer of the sentence what his original intent was ;-)

Brian Tubbs said...

My intended meaning was simply...

"It might be true that most, if not all, Presidents since George Washington added 'so help me God' to the presidential oath. But that it can't be proven that this was the case."

That's essentially what I said and it's definitely what I meant.

Since making that statement, I have read "explicit atheist's" point about the Hoover Library recording. That's solid evidence that Hoover did NOT add "so help me God." So, I will readily concede that not all Presidents added "so help me God" to the oath of office.

Pinky said...

If any person ever gets involved in litigation in which they are accused of some action not specifically detailed in law, they will learn the importance of "common law" in our legal system.
Common Law is a law established by following earlier judicial decisions and a system of jurisprudence based on judicial precedents rather than statutory laws.
Perhaps the addition of the so help me, God clause in the oath of office has come to be law by now?
It is being raised to such a fervor that I expect the ACLU will be taking it under consideration as a legal pursuit soon.

Brian Tubbs said...

The safest and easiest way around this crisis would be for the oath administrator to either ask the President and Vice President if they wish to say "so help me God" at the end of their oath - and then prompt them accordingly. (This is the approach I recommend).


For the oath administrator to inform the President and Vice President that he will NOT add "so help me God" in his prompting - and that it's up to the oath taker to add the words, if he (or she) so chooses. (Knowing the importance of the inaugural ceremony, and how scripted they are - appropriately so - I think this would be the wrong way to go. Too awkward. But it's probably what the secularists here want).

Brian Tubbs said...

Addendum - I meant to put crisis in quotation marks -- "crisis" - because I think this whole thing is a wee-bit overblown.

Brad Hart said...

My following comment is hardly a historical or scholarly take on our discussion. Instead it will be more of a personal opinion on the matter:

Does anyone here HONESTLY care if a president says, "So help me God"? I understand that it is fun to investigate the validity of the Washington inauguration (for which I am very appreciative of Ray Soller's excellent research on this issue) but on a personal level, does anyone here care? For me, I could care less what a president says. After all, the whole inauguration is nothing but pomp & circumstance to begin with.

For me, this is the same as the "One Nation Under God" issue. I realize that some people are EXTREMELY passionate about this (and they have every right to be so). If it really is that offensive or problematic for a person to say those words, they should be free to avoid the Pledge of Allegiance. For me, I see no problem with it. It's like the 10 Commandments being in front of a courthouse. Take them away, leave them, I simply do not care. After all, I believe a person's devotion to God is a PERSONAL issue in the first place. Didn't Jesus say the following:

Matthew 6:
1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:

4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

So, does it really matter if "So help me God" is said, or "In God we Trust" is on the money, or "One Nation Under God" is recited by every American, etc.? I hope I am not being offensive here. If somebody does feel passionately either way on these issues I would love to know why, so that I can better understand the motives behind these passionate debates that seem to never end.

Brian Tubbs said...

Well, I could understand Ray, Ben, and the other anti-So Help Me God attempt were made to amend the Constitution to stick those words in there. OR...if a President chose to revise the interior of the oath by substituting "Bible" for "Constitution" or something like that. Then, I could see and understand the passion.

But "so help me God" is something that's added on AFTER the oath. And a President, whether prompted or not, has the choice of whether to say the words or not say the words. And, may I say frankly, that it would be political suicide for a President in this day and age to REFUSE to say the words. And I think THAT is what makes the secularists here mad.

For my own part, I get frustrated when the 10-15% minority (in this case, atheists) start forcing all references to God out of the public square - when the majority of Americans clearly have no problem with it and, in fact, prefer it. And the Founding Fathers (whether they were CHRISTIAN or not is immaterial here - in fact, it's a distraction) were overwhelmingly Deists and Theists - and had no problem with references to God in the public square.

Jonathan said...

I would endorse the more neutral position of having the Chief Justice refrain from saying "So Help Me God," but permitting the soon to be inaugurated President to choose whether or not to add those words. I think most of them would. But that approach is most consistent with political neutrality which is the classical liberal approach (and I would argue, that we libertarians best represent that tradition, even though it would be a fallacy to equate libertarianism with classical liberals; in a sense, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians are all "classical liberals").

Pinky said...

It seems to me that every post is ignoring the obvious concern with official appeals to any god in government.
The Camel's Nose:
The root phrase is usually attributed to be a saying of Arabs, or Middle Eastern cultures, roughly as follows:

"Do not allow a camel to put his nose under the edge of your tent, for soon you will have a camel in your tent."

(idiomatic) A metaphor for a situation where the permitting of some small act will lead consequently to a larger undesirable act or circumstance.

* slippery slope
* foot in the door
* thin edge of the wedge
Quotes from this site:

Brian Tubbs said...

Pink, I think that is PRECISELY the concern with the secularists. I don't think that's being ignored at all. The only problem is that the Founding Fathers put references to God all through our founding origins. (Problem that is for YOU and your side - not for me).

You've got four references to divinity in the Declaration of Independence alone. And then, even if GW didn't say "so help me God," you've got his taking the oath on the Bible, attending church services right after his inauguration, and making very bold and declarative appeals to God during his inaugural speech.

And don't forget his overtly religious national thanksgiving proclamation - and the repeated calls for prayer, "humiliation," and fasting offered by the Congress during the war - and some of the state assemblies as well. I could go on and on and on.

God is all through America's early history and heritage. Secularists may chip away at a few things here and there, quibbling with when "so help me God" was first said - stuff like that. But they can't change the FACTS. God is all through our national origins. Just as He should be.

Ray Soller said...

Why should anyone care about whether a Chief Justice prompts the President to say, "So help me God"?

The Chief Justice like any Federal employee took an oath to uphold the Constitution. It's a conflict of interest for any judicial official to advise the president to do or say anything, and it sets a negative example that says it's all right to ignore the principles outlined in the Constitution.

It also puts Congress on notice regarding whether even the optional presence of "So help me God" in the standard oath for federal employments should be regarded as a violation of the "no religious test" clause in the Constitution.

Recognize it or not, there's an official "line in the sand" that is preventing federal employees from correcting the historical disinformation that is being disseminated on official government websites. This same "line in the sand" creates a totally repressive regime that is suppressing university-based historians whose projects are supported by federal funds from speaking out in any noticeable way.

bpabbott said...

Brian: "Well, I could understand Ray, Ben, and the other anti-So Help Me God attempt were made to amend the Constitution to stick those words in there. OR...if a President chose to revise the interior of the oath by substituting "Bible" for "Constitution" or something like that. Then, I could see and understand the passion."

I won't speak for Ray or the others, but if GW had inserted the words, I'd wish that to be indicated in the historical record. What I object to is the inclusion of unsubstantiated claims in the historic record.

Beyond that I also object any any violation of 1st amendment's religious protections. Specifically, the Cheif Justice should not modify the oath of office to suit his desires, but the president should be free to so if it is consistent with the intended purpose of the oath.

Brian: "Secularists may chip away at a few things here and there, quibbling with when "so help me God" was first said - stuff like that. But they can't change the FACTS."

Speaking again for myself, it is all about protecting the facts and prohibiting unsubstantiated claims.

Brian: "God is all through our national origins. Just as He should be."

Or more accurately, the men who founded and framed our nation embraced a belief in God. Whether or not such a belief "should be" depends upon whether the actions inspired by their religious sentiments produced constructive or destructive effects.