Monday, June 30, 2008

"So Help Me God" as a forced "Religious Test"

This is just a short posting to build upon what Ray and Brian have already been talking about. As Brian and Ray have both noted in their postings below, the presidential oath of office, as it states in Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution, is 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."

Yet, despite this VERY SPECIFIC oath of office, why is it that the U.S. Supreme Court Justices, who are swearing in our newly elected presidents, are essentially obligating them to say "So help me God"? Don't believe me? Just check out a few recent presidential inaugurations and listen very carefully as the Chief Justice inserts "So help me God" as part of the oath, even though, as you can see above, it is not part of the Constitution. Is this a violation of Article VI, Section III of the Constitution, which states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States"?

Here are the videos:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

Harry Truman:

Dwight D. Eisenhower:

John F. Kennedy:

Lyndon Johnson:

Richard Nixon:

Anyway, I think the point is obvious. Every president since television and radio recording was possible has been REQUIRED to say "So help me God" as a part of their oath of office, even though the Constitution does not require it. Am I missing something? Was their a change made in the Constitution itself at some point? Again, I personally don't really care what these presidents say in their oath. As far as I am concerned it's all a bunch of pomp and circumstance. But for some, this is a big deal and I can see why. Ray is right to point out that a RELIGIOUS TEST is being required during the oath of office.


Brian Tubbs said...

It's only a religious test, Brad, if the Presidents are indeed required to say the oath.

I've already conceded that it would be best for the Chief Justice NOT to prod them with those words - unless the incoming President states that he will add 'so help me God' to the oath.

This is only a constitutional or legal problem IF the Chief Justice requires the President to say 'so help me God' and the President refuses and then the Chief Justice says: "Well, you can't be President then!" THAT would be a problem.

But for you to claim that this is a religious test, you'd have to demonstrate that these Presidents were coerced into saying "so help me God" in order to assume the presidency. That they were prodded or encouraged to do so does not constitute coercion.

Brian Tubbs said...

Let me put it another way...

Do you REALLY think any of the Presidents you've cited via YouTube would have objected to adding "so help me God" to the oath????

More than likely, they would've added it themselves, even if the justice swearing them in hadn't encouraged them with the words.

Again, I think it is definitely appropriate for the justice to refrain from adding those words, unless the incoming President expresses his desire to say them.

However, no offense to the Constitution has taken place, unless the justice explicitly requires the incoming President to say "so help me God" as a condition of assuming the office.

Brad Hart said...

I agree. It is politically smart to say, "So help me God." Like I mentioned before, I really could care less what a president says in his oath...I just wanted to present another element to this discussion.

Explicit Atheist said...

A legal oath can only be modified by the oath giver on the request of the oath taker when a phrase or word in the oath conflicts with oath taker's conscience. Otherwise, it should be considered to be at least an ethical violation, if not a legal violation, for a government oath giver to deliberately add phrases to or remove phrases from legal oaths.

I doubt that the Supreme Court Justice would say those words if the president asked him not to and the president could opt to not repeat that phrase if the judge said it anyway, although that would be very awkward. Either way, dropping that popularly anticipated phrase from the oath would be very unpopular. So the effect of the Supreme Court judges always adding that phrase has unavoidably become coercive. Ideally, government officials would avoid introducing that coercive element into government processes like they have here.

Pinky said...

The point is that tradition plays such an important role in law and when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of The United States of America ~ traditionally ~ gives the oath ordering presidents to place their right hand on the Bible and to repeat after them, "so help me, God", we are seeing law put in place.
I wonder what would happen to a president who refused to repeat the religious test when it is given.

bpabbott said...

I strongly disagree with Brian's position. However, I do think it important to ask who took the initiative to have the words inserted.

Have the Presidents, in question, been consulted ahead of time, or perhaps they have requested these words be appended.

In either case, I don't see a problem.

However, if the words are added without their prior consent or desires, then there is a constitutional problem ... where in the constitution are the enumerated powers of the Chief Justice said to include modification of the Presidential Oath?

Ray Soller said...

Quiz time:

Did JFK swear his oath on a Bible?

When on Air Force One did Lyndon Johnson swear his oath on a Bible?

Brian Tubbs said...

Ray, I don't know, but I'm going to assume that you'll tell us neither President took the oath on the Bible. That's fine. I've not made the claim that every single President took the oath on the Bible, because I know that a few didn't.

Brian Tubbs said...

Ben, it seems like you would prefer an opt-in situation rather than an opt-out. That's fine, but I seriously doubt any of our recent Presidents would decline to add 'so help me God' - so I think the point is moot.

Brian Tubbs said...

Pink, the consequences that a President would face for not adding 'so help me God' are consequences that would be brought by the American people - NOT by the Supreme Court Justice doing the swearing-in.

And the American people - as voters - have every right to apply whatever standard, test, criteria, etc. they want, when it comes to who they will vote for.

The "religious test" clause in the US Constitution does NOT apply to the individual voter. The American people can choose - as individuals - to vote for only left-handed candidates, if that is what they desire. I, as a voter, can ask anything I want of a President - and the government has no right to tell me that I can't ask and vote accordingly.

Jonathan said...

I'm sure that either of two men who are elected will have no problem saying "So Help Me God" when inaugurated. The question is whether Chief Justice Roberts, if he is privy to this controversy, is willing to be silent and let the inaugurated President add those words himself.

Perhaps, in the meantime, we can try to send the message out to the Chief Justice and see if we can reach him. Perhaps we can get Prof. Carter on board.

Pinky said...

Brian, I completely understand your point about the oath of office and the American people.
My point is more about how something can become a law by way of tradition and judicial decisions.
Some time back, when persons were sworn in to testify in court, they had been required by law, on the Bible, to "swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing buy the truth, so help me God". That was challenged and, as I recall, it created a legal fire storm.
The inclusion of S.H.M.G. could be seen as a foot in the door for a religious test for office in the future--or a camel's nose in the tent if that makes the point in a better way.
Personally, I think some legal clarification will have to be made down the road and sooner or later.

bpabbott said...

Brian: "Ben, it seems like you would prefer an opt-in situation rather than an opt-out. That's fine, but I seriously doubt any of our recent Presidents would decline to add 'so help me God' - so I think the point is moot."

As I understand it liberty is best preserved by an opt-in policy. Each citizen, including the President, should be free to choose for themselves.

Regarding the point being moot, do you imply that pro-liberty "opt-in" approach is of no consequence to you? If so I am genuinely surprised, it appears to me that you have a great passion for supporting such.

Personally, I see "opt-in" as both more proper with regards to the principle of liberty and with regards to the interpretation (original intent or literal) of the US Constitution. Thus, for me the point is not moot.