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.