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:
"...it 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.