Tuesday, January 20, 2009

George Washington, the Oath of Office, and So Help Me God


At the request of Barack Obama, Chief Justice John Roberts today added the words "So Help Me God" to the presidential oath, continuing a tradition that -- at least -- dates back to Chester A. Arthur and may go back even further.

The Debate Over Four Simple Words

Objections to adding "So Help Me God" have intensified in recent years, due to activists such as Michael Newdow and American Creation's very own Ray Soller. They contend that prompting an incoming President to say "so help me God" amounts to a "religious test" (which, of course, is expressly forbidden by our Constitution) and that it's not reflective of the will of the Founders. This latter point is in dispute, as historical tradition generally holds that "so help me God" was added by our first President, the Father of our Country, George Washington.

Here is where the debate gets intense. The secularists (for lack of a better term) insist that there's no direct, eyewitness testimony to place "so help me God" on the lips of President Washington at his inauguration. They contend it's a historical "legend" fostered by Washington Irving. Since Washington didn't say the words, they contend, modern Presidents should not either.

Unraveling the Real Agenda Against "So Help Me God"

There are several fundamental flaws with the secularist argument:

1. Not all "legends" are false. There are many things in history we call "legend" and which we do NOT know to be false. In other words, the jury is out on some of them. In some cases, the legend may, in fact, be true (or at least close to the truth). And, in the cases where it's not true, it may still be partly true or at least be based on true events.

2. Assertion isn't reality. Secularists can't have it both ways. On the one hand, they claim that the oft-repeated tradition that Washington added "so help me God" shouldn't be believed, simply because it's been repeated over the years. Okay. Fine. If that's the case, then let's apply the same logic the other way. Just because secularists are now calling Washington's "so help me God" addition a "myth" doesn't make it a myth. The truth (the real truth) stands apart from our assertions - regardless of which side we're on.

3. There is a difference between "oral tradition" and a "legend" or "myth." By calling an event or claim of history a "legend," one automatically calls it into question. This is the power of language. Yet, if we analyze this issue carefully, it's more appropriate to call Washington Irving's recollection of George Washington's inaugural swearing-in "oral tradition" and not a "legend." And oral tradition carries weight in historical circles (or at least it used to).

4. The absence of direct evidence doesn't automatically overturn historical tradition, which itself is bolstered by indirect evidence. The best way to illustrate this point is by example. How early did people celebrate Christmas? The earliest known reference to the celebration of Christmas (as an official feast or celebration on December 25) is in the mid-4th century. Does that mean that this was the earliest Christmas was celebrated? Not necessarily. It only means that we lack documentary proof of Christmas celebrations prior to the mid-4th century. Likewise, the ONLY thing that Mr. Soller, Mr. Newdow, and others have established (and that Mount Vernon and the Library of Congress have conceded) is that there's no direct, documentary evidence to prove that Washington said "so help me God." Forgive the double negative here, but this does NOT automatically or necessarily prove that Washington didn't say the words.

5. Secularists argue that George Washington was a stickler for rule and detail, and that it would have been "uncharacteristic" for him to add "so help me God" to the presidential oath. This is another example of the secularists picking and choosing their facts. The argument that it would have been uncharacteristic for Washington to add "so help me God" is one of the most foolish contentions made in this debate. One only needs to read Washington's First Inaugural Address to see that our first President intentionally and emphatically made God a part of the proceedings.

"...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...."

Now read this next part VERY CAREFULLY....

"... You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence."

George Washington makes it clear (for those willing to see clearly, that is) that the "proceedings" of the inauguration of the new government - the one over which Washington would preside - should be "commenced" with "fervent supplications to the Almighty Being who rules over the universe." And that the American people should obey and adore the "Invisible Hand" (see the full text of the speech) that providentially guides the nation.

You're going to tell me that it would have been UNCHARACTERISTIC for George Washington (after saying all the above - and more - about God) to have said (even if it were only a whisper) "so help me God" at the end of the oath!!!????

*****

To hear me interviewed on this subject, visit "Why The Controversy Over Religion at the Inaugural?" over at the "American Revolution & Founding Era" blog.

*****

6. If Washington said "so help me God" at the end of the oath, it was probably uttered as a personal sentiment (from his standpoint) and not as part of any official oath. I believe Washington would AGREE with the argument that a Chief Justice shouldn't require an incoming President to say "so help me God." For that matter, I agree with that point. The Constitution is clear that no religious test can be forced on a federal official, but....

The Constitution is also clear that we have the right to the "free exercise" of our religion. And, quite frankly, that includes incoming Presidents.

As to whether a President should have to opt-IN as opposed to opting OUT of saying the words, let me simply point to a few democratic realities. Depending on what poll you read, 85-95% of the American people believe in God. Similar polls have shown that the American people overwhelmingly want their President to be a person of faith. Given this reality, it's clear that the culture (and that includes inaugural ceremonies) will reflect the majority will of the people.

7. The First Amendment doesn't protect anyone from being offended or uncomfortable. This idea that our public square has to be free from all religious verbage or symbolism because it makes some people feel "uncomfortable" or it "offends" them is, frankly, a pile of what old farmers call fertilizer. Now, I don't mean to be impolite here, but this really gets me frustrated. I remember a few years ago, students in a public school voted something like 490 to 96 to have STUDENT-led prayer over the loudspeaker in the mornings. Well, some folks on the losing side of that vote do what many liberal activists do when they can't win at the ballot box - they sued in court. And the courts, typical of liberal judicial activism, ruled against those 490 students!

This is the same thing - only at a bigger level. You've got, what, 10% or (I'll be generous) 20% of the American people who want a 100% secular public square (with no mention of God whatsoever), and they are trying to force that into reality via the court system.

For one thing, a 100% secular public square (with no mention of God) is nowhere near what the Founding Fathers envisioned! And for another, it's not what an overwhelming majority of the American people want.

I appreciate the time and scholarship that many people, including our own Mr. Soller, have put into this issue. And I always appreciate it when people engage in civic participation.

But, in my opinion, this issue has been blown way out of proportion. The phrase "much adoo about nothing" comes to mind!

If the American people ever elect an atheist President, THEN and ONLY THEN will secularists like Messrs. Newdow and Soller have a case to make. But the day Americans vote in an atheist for President is probably a long way off - and, in my opinion, I'm glad for that. And I'm sure the Founders would be as well.

37 comments:

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Italics, capital letters, boldface, and excessive punctuation aside, this is not a very convincing argument. If we lack credible evidence for a claim, we, as historians, cannot assert that claim. The burden of proof is on the person making the positive claim, not the one denying it.

Also, you're building a bit of a strawman in point 7. The issue is not "discomfort" or "offense" - the issue is whether phrases like, "So help me, God" or events like the Saddleback forum skirt the line of an official religious test. Your final point is laughably weak: we can only protest once the barrier has been broken - we can do nothing to weaken it beforehand.

Should a president be allowed to opt in? Sure. S/he should be able to append whatever s/he likes. That doesn't mean we shouldn't have a national conversation about the meaning of Article VI, section 3.

Brad Hart said...

First off, I love the fact that Brian is challenging those who insist upon removing the “Myth” of Washington’s “So help me God” inaugural precedent. It makes for an excellent debate, which I must admit I am enjoying. Second, I also appreciate Mr. Soller’s research on this matter. He has helped to shed light on this issue, and is obviously in the know when it comes to the sources surrounding Washington’s inaugural.

Mr. Tubbs writes:

"Just because secularists are now calling Washington's "so help me God" addition a "myth" doesn't make it a myth. The truth (the real truth) stands apart from our assertions - regardless of which side we're on."

Brian is right, people. We cannot say CONCLUSIVELY that Washington did or did not say, "So help me God." Simply put there is not enough evidence to prove this issue beyond a reasonable doubt. For one camp to insist that their case is foolproof is a bit of a stretch.. Simply put, I just don't see how we can be so sure either way. I guess we will have to wait until the Rapture/Second Coming/next life/Nirvana/whatever you believe in before we know for sure. Frankly I wouldn't be surprised if Washington did or didn't say, "So help me God." There's just too much "wiggle room" when it comes to Washington's personal religious beliefs. Perhaps he was the most orthodox of men, perhaps not.

Brian also writes:

"They contend that prompting an incoming President to say "so help me God" amounts to a "religious test" (which, of course, is expressly forbidden by our Constitution) and that it's not reflective of the will of the Founders."

Really? Does saying, "So help me God" really violate the Constitutional "religious test?" Isn't the "religious test" simply an expression of the founders' hope to prevent the sanctioning of one religion over another? How does "God" violate that principle? I think there would be a case to be made if a president was prompted to say, "So help me Jesus Christ/Allah," etc. But God??? I guess if the incoming president were an atheist I could understand, so perhaps there is a case to be made. I just don't know.

Another historical issue that is clear as mud I suppose...

Brian Tubbs said...

Caitlin, to say that the Saddleback forum skirted the line of constitutional propriety is ludicrous.

American voters can impose whatever "test" they want on incoming Presidents. If I want to argue that only left-handed women who root for the Detroit Lions should be President, that's my right. Of course, I'd be rather insane to insist on the last point - no offense to Lions fans (assuming there are still a few).

A majority of Americans have some form of religious faith. That makes the Saddleback forum appropriate and it also guarantees that you'll have some religious imagery and traditions as part of the inauguration (just as was the case at Washington's inauguration).

Brian Tubbs said...

Brad writes: "I guess if the incoming president were an atheist I could understand, so perhaps there is a case to be made."

This is where I agree with Ray, Caitlin, and others. If an atheist President were forced to say "so help me God" (or even pressured to say it - pressured, that is, by the Chief Justice), I would agree that we have a problem. That would be unconstitutional.

But every single President we've had has, to at least some degree, professed a belief in God. So, what's the problem????

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Since you do not address it, I am assuming that my major point stands: historians must rely on positive evidence when asserting positive claims.

As for the Saddleback forum, I do not think that it was over the line, but I do think that it raised the issue of what constitutes an official event vs. a voluntary event. Therefore it "skirted" that line, i.e. did not cross, but did a walk-by. Of course citizens can have their own criteria, as we all do, and many people choose to include religious orthodoxy among their desired traits. My question is, what happens next election? Does the Saddleback forum become a "tradition" like the NH primary - not really set in stone, but hard to break? In some ways, it might turn out to be similar to your school prayer example - unofficial, but still coercive. Again, I'm not saying something like Saddleback was unconstitutional, but I think we can still talk about whether it was appropriate.

I'm also failing to follow your logic on the last point (only an atheist president has standing to protest). If presidents are freely choosing to say, "So help me, God," by indicating they would like to do so beforehand, I don't have much of a problem with that, but I don't think we need to wait around for an atheist president before we start talking about whether it constitutes an official religious test when administered on the Chief Justice's say-so.

Think about how "So help me, God" has permeated our culture. While I will probably never be president, I may someday testify in court or serve on a jury. Will I be forced to take a "So help me, God" oath? If I am a witness and I refuse, will the jury disregard my testimony out of prejudice? Why should anyone ask me to profess my (non)faith in a court of law anyway?

Maybe the disconnect between your thinking and mine is that you see people who have a "problem" and are blowing things "out of proportion." I just see people discussing our peaceful governmental procedures in a civil and legal way, and I don't think that's ever a problem.

Pinky said...

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In his article, Brian writes, "Here is where the debate gets intense. The secularists (for lack of a better term) insist that there's no direct, eyewitness testimony to place "so help me God" on the lips of President Washington at his inauguration. They contend it's a historical "legend" fostered by Washington Irving. Since Washington didn't say the words, they contend, modern Presidents should not either." (my bold)
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I am a staunch secularist and insist no such thing...

Our presidents have unalienable rights to believe whatever religion they like as long as they do not attempt to impose their beliefs on the people.
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So, I disagree with your broad claim about "Secularists (for want of a better term)". Maybe you could have used anti-Religionist or something like that?
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Pinky said...

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I don't want to knit-pick, Brian; but, where do you get this kind of talk: "For one thing, a 100% secular public square (with no mention of God) is nowhere near what the Founding Fathers envisioned! And for another, it's not what an overwhelming majority of the American people want."
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Who is it that claims secularists want "no mention of God" in the public square?
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I watched Franklin Graham on the boob toob this morning (that would be Fox News to the unwashed) and he earned his position among the Christian Piston group. If it were up to him, the American congress would hold prayer meetings in praise of Jesus Christ at least for one 12 hour stint each and every week. He even brought in John 3:15 with a triumphant smile on his face to impress his followers. Who else does anyone think he was talking to? That, according to Graham, is just about the only kind of thing that could ever bring God's blessings back to America. In the meantime, according to him, we apparently have turned our backs on God. What a bunch of patronizing gobbledegook that is. I'm sure he earned his position among the great Christian Pistons of the day.
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Pandering for financial support from the radicals with any money is what I see. I've been close to these types most of my life. When you mix politics, religion, and capitalism, you get the Franklin Grahams of the world. And their number is legion!
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Pinky said...

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Uh, that would be John 3:16; but, what can you expect from a numbskull like me?
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Brian Tubbs said...

Caitlin: "Since you do not address it, I am assuming that my major point stands: historians must rely on positive evidence when asserting positive claims."

You assume too much. :-)

Seriously, I believe I addressed this in my initial post. If we're talking about generally accepted historical tradition, then I don't believe that direct, eyewitness testimony is necessary to confirm that tradition.

Brian Tubbs said...

Caitlin, on the Saddleback forum, I still don't see how there's anything even CLOSE to improper.

Look...it's now become "tradition" for presidential candidates to appear on Oprah's talk show. Is that a problem?

There is a MAJOR distinction between unofficial, CULTURAL "traditions" and official, required traditions. A religion forum like the one at Saddleback MAY - and I emphasize "MAY" - emerge as the former, but it will never emerge as the latter. If it does evolve into an unofficial, cultural thing, then so be it. There's no constitutional issue there. If the latter, then I will agree with you.

Ray Soller said...

Brian, I would like to clarify a few points:
1) The reason I have been more of an "activist" on this subject in contrast to other more reputable historical scholars is because I'm a retired nobody. Established scholars worry about how their professional reputations are going to survive if they buck the established trend, and they fret over whether various funding sources will dry up. I collect Social Security, and my family will love me in spite of my many odd-ball habits, so the other stuff doesn't worry me.
2) I can't say whether I've been careless as some point, but what I try to say consistently is that there is no contemporary or subsequent firsthand account supporting the notion that George Washington added "So help me God" to his oath. The Griswold-Irving narrative is no more reliable than Parson's Weems' story saying that Washington cut down his father's cherry tree. In addition, my research convinces me that Washington Irving is many times more likely to have added "So help me God" to Washington's oath than Washington himself. People can believe what they want, but they can no longer enter the courtroom and use this single episode as the flagship event, which is taken from our common historical heritage, for the purpose of interlarding the taxpayer's public square with state-sponsored acknowledgements of God.
3) I have found no printed evidence of anyone relying upon the notion that George Washington added "So help me God" as a recognizable "tradition" until well into the twentieth century. My personal advice to our future elected Presidents is that if they want to follow the historical example set by George Washington, then they will not ad-lib, spontaneously add, or improvise the conclusion to the presidential oath as prescribed by the Constitution. The improvised nature of the Roberts' administered oath was apparent for the world to see, and I saw it as a total embarrassment.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

"If we're talking about generally accepted historical tradition, then I don't believe that direct, eyewitness testimony is necessary to confirm that tradition."

Perhaps I should clarify - I don't mean "positive" as in "irrefutable," I mean "positive" as in "the opposite of negative." Positive claims require positive evidence. You can build a case with enough circumstantial evidence, but, as Ray points out, this is a case when the available evidence suggests that "Washington Irving is many times more likely to have added 'So help me God' to Washington's oath than Washington himself."

"Generally accepted tradition" is not historical evidence. Oral history can be useful, especially when it relates to an individual's own experiences (but can be problematic - see WPA slave narratives), but that doesn't mean that Miles Standish courted Priscilla Mullins through John Alden.

This sort of thing pops up from time to time - a clear example of the tension between historical memory and historical argument. A good example is the "Freedom Quilt" kerfuffle. Many people believe that slaves and abolitionists used quilts to mark the way to freedom, despite the lack of any 19th-century references to the practice. No such quilts survive, no one ever mentioned using them, some of the supposed patterns are known to have been invented in the 20th century etc. Yet, people persist in believing that freedom quilts existed. They often cite the testimony of an elderly South Carolina quilt-seller who first told the story to a customer in the 1980s as evidence, much as you cite the "tradition." Should historians say that there is a dispute over the freedom quilts? Or should they be comfortable maintaining a position of skepticism unless other evidence comes to light?

jimmiraybob said...

"If we're talking about generally accepted historical tradition, then I don't believe that direct, eyewitness testimony is necessary to confirm that tradition."

Then you are advocating that our national character be grounded on unfounded feel-good tails - as long as they are not challenged for some length of time? Should the test be one or ten or a hundred years? This defies reason if reason is to be used to establish an objective reality. For each person that can martial the weight of evidence to imagine GW as saying, "So help me God" there is someone that can martial the weight of evidence to imagine that he did not.

I would like to believe that GW chopped down the cherry tree or that our recently departed president really was a rancher but that would not make it so. I should state, as I did in earlier comments on a previous post, that I would find no harm to myself or the nation if that evidence surfaces.

As it is this claim, presented as fact, is being used by some to create a larger narrative that this is a "Christian Nation" in a way that I don't think is correct or healthy for the general liberty of all citizens.

This story should be placed on the "tentative" shelf until such time that un-ambiguous evidence can be put forth to establish it as fact.

Brian Tubbs said...

Ray & Caitlin, as I've mentioned before, I agree with you on two points...

1. We don't know for sure if Washington said "so help me God," therefore historians need to refrain from any unequivocal declarations that he did. (They ALSO, I will add, need to refrain from unequivocal declarations he didn't).

2. No President should be FORCED to say "so help me God" in order to assume the presidency, and this would certainly become an issue if we ever elect an atheist or polytheist to the White House. I hope that day never comes, but if it does, then I will concede that you both (and the others here who agree with you) have a point.

Brian Tubbs said...

I updated my blog post here to link to a radio interview I did yesterday (Jan 20) on this issue. Just FYI - if anyone's interested.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jimmiraybob (and Ray and Caitlin), my point about historical tradition is NOT that we should just embrace all the "feel-good tales" we wish to, regardless of the evidence. That's not what I said.

What I mean is....

We are much too quick to dismiss Washington Irving's report of the inauguration.

We've become much too cynical and much too dismissive (in many areas).

Irving's report of Washington's First Inaugural counts as "oral tradition." That should not be dismissed, simply because we lack OTHER witnesses attesting to it.

Brad Hart said...

Brian:

I couldn't get the radio link to work.

Ray Soller said...

Brad Hart said, "Simply put there is not enough evidence to prove this issue beyond a reasonable doubt." I can assure everyone that, at least for myself and historian Peter Henriques, there is sufficient evidence to conclude, "beyond a reasonable doubt," that Washington did not add "So help me God" to his oath of office. It all boils down to what an individual considers a reasonable analysis of the facts versus what is sustainable by virtue of its traditional longevity.

Even if others wish to disagree with the factual conclusion, the Senate Historical Office is still acting unconscionably irresponsible by not removing the non-historical information listed at their website, Facts and Firsts.

Pinky said...

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Brian, my monitor does not show that you have posted a link to your radio interview. I would like to hear it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

...but they can no longer enter the courtroom and use this single episode as the flagship event, which is taken from our common historical heritage, for the purpose of interlarding the taxpayer's public square with state-sponsored acknowledgements of God.

Oh my.

Moments after George Washington became a "government official," he acknowledged the hell out of God in his inaugural address.

The historical record is full of almost countless incidents of "interlarding the taxpayer's public square with state-sponsored acknowledgements of God."

Our Founding Truth said...

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...
The burden of proof is on the person making the positive claim, not the one denying it.>

Some people on this blog don't believe that.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, I don't think skeptics shed all burden of proof, although they often attempt that tactic.

However, on this matter, I believe Mr. Soller, et al., have done enough conscientious research to make a firm case for the negative.

That's not the same thing as a lazy skepticism that appoints itself judge and jury and insists on a level of proof that can never be met to its satisfaction.

The standard in these things is not "beyond a reasonable doubt," as in a criminal procedure, it's the "preponderance of the evidence," like any other civil matter.

jimmiraybob said...

Irving's report of Washington's First Inaugural counts as "oral tradition." That should not be dismissed, simply because we lack OTHER witnesses attesting to it.

This approach lacks any kind of rigor. Perhaps an attorney can comment on the reliability of eyewitness testimony to events that happened a week, or a year or 10 years after the observed event. It's my understanding that Irving was 6 years old at the time of the inaugural and his recollection was made some 65 years after that. This does not inspire a great degree of confidence in it's veracity.

Plus, there is a published contemporary account that excludes the phrase. Either account could be tainted for nefarious reasons only known to the author that is why corroborating evidence is needed. On whole, the contemporary accounting - as far as I know unchallenged at the time - is far more likely to be accurate.

This is not a cynical approach. It is a way of establishing objective reality which I believe the founders would find the more persuasive method.

Why chance giving tacit approval to a possible untruth? Why not present it with the appropriate caveats rather than give it the weight of accepted history?

Since GW is generally looked upon with a deserved respect and his words and actions are used as authoritative precedent, the truth here matters more than in most cases. As I said, this weak story is too often presented as settled fact in order to establish a larger narrative. It seems to me that a sound narrative should be built on a firm foundation.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, I didn't say that Washington avoided references to the Almighty during his administration or that he felt private and community religious worship as being unnecessary for the public good. I am saying that crediting GW with saying SHMG is not apt to head up the litany of state sponsored pro-God endorsements any longer. Please don't turn my words around.

Newdow's lawsuit is still on the docket. If he gets a chance to present his case, I seriously doubt that any defendant is going to assert, without being challenged, that GW said SHMG and that is a tradition carried on by most presidents ever since.

If you lower the standard to what is the preponderance of the evidence, then there's no contest - Washington didn't add SHMG to his presidential oath. If you ask me to demonstrate the same proposition to a reasonable certainty, then I believe that all of the facts, at the very least, point in this direction, if they aren't judged as exceeding it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

You seem predisposed to misunderstand me, Ray. I intended props with the "single-handedly" comment, perhaps a bit of hyperbolic, but that's all.

Above, I say you did thorough research and make a firm case against Washington saying "so help me God." If I didn't exactly say it---preferring to urge people think for themselves instead of just spouting my opinion---I think you met the threshold of "preponderance of the evidence," even though arguing for a negative is the far more difficult task.

It takes conscientious effort, something lazy skeptics refuse to invest.

To be accused of "turning your words around" hurts me.

As for Washington's inauguration, it's been my larger argument from the first that his swearing on a Bible and talking a lot about God makes the oath issue not paramount.

As for Newdow's current case, I believe my take on Justice Roberts turning it around to "so help you God?" is an original point and I'd hoped it would be acknowledged. It might just pass judicial muster against Newdow's challenge where the old way might not.

bpabbott said...

I've been working all day ... now that I'm free I'm going to fire of a volley of comments ... you might want to duck ;-)

Brad: >>We cannot say CONCLUSIVELY that Washington did or did not say, "So help me God." Simply put there is not enough evidence to prove this issue beyond a reasonable doubt. For one camp to insist that their case is foolproof is a bit of a stretch.<<

I find the point logical, but I also think it misses the point. Speculation and has no place in the historic record.

As Caitlin said: "[...] historians must rely on positive evidence when asserting positive claims."

... and fwiw, it is my opinion that both Justice Roberts and President Obama took measures to ensure the oath was constitutional. It is reported that Obama asked that the words be included, and the Justice rephrased the words so as to give the President an option. Kudos to each.

bpabbott said...

Brian,

I agree with Phil, your implication that secularism is anti-religious is insulting ... actually Phil didn't use that word, but I will.

Regarding you comment: "We don't know for sure if Washington said "so help me God," therefore historians need to refrain from any unequivocal declarations that he did."

As there is no historic record of the words, the best a historian can do is say that many believed that such and that the clain was widely accepted during the 20th century. A historian would also mention that there is no historic evidence of the claim.

Regarding your comment: "[...] They ALSO, I will add, need to refrain from unequivocal declarations he didn't."

No problem, and no offense intended, but they won't mention he didn't walk on water, or fly to the moon either.

Pinky said...

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Sometimes, it's convenient to rale against and to be, in general, strongly against "Secular Humanism". That's a good strategy to impress the highly biased congregations that, after all is said and done, hold the power of the purse over their religious leaders.
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Being a preacher is one tough row to hoe.
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bpabbott said...

Tom: "I believe Mr. Soller, et al., have done enough conscientious research to make a firm case for the negative."

I'd think it more proper to say; Mr. Soller, et al., have done sufficient research to demonstrate that is no evidence for the claim. While lack of evidence is not evidence of lack, a lack of evidence is sufficient to remove such speculation from the historic record.

Brian Tubbs said...

Clarification...I realize the danger of labels, but it gets tedious to type "secularists who passionately push to dump 'So Help Me God' from the oath" all the time. So, rather than keep saying that (or similar words), I shortened it to simply "secularists." And that has caused some heartburn here.

Look....the bottom line...there are quite a few secularists who are hostile to religion. That's a fact. It's also a fact that the modern secularist movement is heavily influenced by people who are called "New Atheists" (people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, et al). And these New Atheists aren't simply "I don't believe in God" types, they are actually HOSTILE to God and those who believe in God.

I believe that much of that is in play with this debate over "So Help Me God."

I'm NOT saying that EVERYBODY feels that way or is motivated by those sentiments, but they are present (in a major way) in this debate.

Brian Tubbs said...

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is absolutely INCORRECT to assert that there's "no evidence" for George Washington saying "So Help Me God" at his 1789 inauguration.

What you CAN say is that there's no DIRECT evidence for the claim. But it's dishonest to say that there's NO evidence.

That is exactly what I'm talking about in this whole discussion.

For the record, there IS evidence...

1. "So Help Me God" was a common addition and/or response to official oaths during the founding era, thus it would NOT have been scandalous or at all exceptional for GW to have said the words.

2. Saying "So Help Me God" was in keeping with GW's personal faith in Providence and his reliance on prayer.

3. The fact that GW says (in his Inaugural Address) that he didn't want to "omit" God from the "proceedings" is CONSISTENT with (and at least mildly implies) his possibly saying "So Help Me God" in the oath.

4. Griswold's account is still evidence! Even though Griswold wasn't present at the event, he was in a position to have heard accounts of the inauguration from others (including, it would seem, Washington Irving). Historical scholarship can't simply dismiss this with the wave of a hand. For crying out loud, wasn't the earliest biography of Alexander the Great written 400 years after the man died!?? Unless Griswold is shown to be completely untrustworthy, then his account of the event (published as a history book) must be taken seriously.

Now, look, I acknowledge that the evidence is thinner than direct eye-witness testimony. I further acknowledge that, regardless of whether GW said the words, he would NOT want those words imposed on anyone. To do so would violate the Constitution.

But we simply can't prove this issue one way or the other.

Tom Van Dyke said...

While lack of evidence is not evidence of lack, a lack of evidence is sufficient to remove such speculation from the historic record.

No, Ben. Speculation is always permitted. In fact, only out of courtesy for Ray Soller as a blogbrother did I offer my opinion that I found his research to be most persuasive under "preponderance of the evidence" standard. But that didn't mean that I didn't find Brian Tubbs' argument about "oral tradition" to be invalid. I went 60-40 or 51-49 in favor, whatever.

Even when the "conventional wisdom" goes 99-1 against, the voice in the wilderness is right that hundredth time.

Here's a gun with a hundred chambers, Ben, with only one bullet in one of the chambers. Wanna play Russian Roulette? You put up a buck and I'll put up $100.
Click. Click...

bpabbott said...

Tom: "No, Ben. Speculation is always permitted."

If the historic record indicates that many speculated or believed in events for which there is no evidence, I agree.

However, therer is no place in the historic record for speculations presented as evidence. It is difficult enough understaning the historic record with out introducing unsubstantiated speculation.

In any event, I came across a quote via Volokh -> Ed Brayton. I immediately thought of *you*! :-)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, thx. My buddy John Adams. Author-philosopher-twit. It's indeed gratifying Hamilton agreed.

However, therer is no place in the historic record for speculations presented as evidence.

Well, mostly I agree with that. Yet I hear Hamilton and were Washington were "theistic rationalists" all the time, a speculation that is at worst false and at best is unprovable.

Pinky said...

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While I don't feel qualified to get involved in some discussions regarding historical accuracy, I do have two questions to which I would like to see a clear answer:
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1. Are historians under the guidance of a certain set of standards, ethics, rules, etc., and is there a recognized authority that acts like a clearing house of authentication for any statements that may be made regarding historical facts?
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2. Or is the study of history just so loose that observers can believe whatever seems correct to them?
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Huh?

Brian Tubbs said...

Pink, this is actually somewhat of a debate among scholars and historians - whether the focus of history should be on the FACTS or on the interpretation. I'm oversimplifying it perhaps, but it's all part of the modernist vs. post-modernist thing.

Pinky said...

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"Pink, this is actually somewhat of a debate among scholars and historians - whether the focus of history should be on the FACTS or on the interpretation. I'm oversimplifying it perhaps, but it's all part of the modernist vs. post-modernist thing."
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Yup, I got that part.
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I think the key word in your statement is, somewhat.

Sometimes academics miss the point and that gives scholarship a bad name.
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But, free speech rules the day and that makes me happy.

I'm not so sure I understand your reference to "modernist vs. postmodernist".
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I have been asking these "scholarly" ones about their standards and ethics; but, haven't, as yet, got any response.