Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Thoughts

Congratulations to our Ray Soller for pretty much single-handedly setting the historical record straight about whether George Washington said "So help me God" at his inauguration. There is no reason except legend to believe so: there is absolutely zero first-hand testimony.

[USA Today picked up the story, but rudely omitted Mr. Soller's contribution.]

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On the silly front, there was a jumble today when Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath to Barack Obama. See the comments under this news report---partisans from left and right blamed the other "side" for the screw-up.

Even more troubling is that here's the video, and the commenters can't even agree about what they saw!

For the record, it seems Obama jumped in early with the first line, then Roberts proceeded to put the word "faithfully" in the wrong place, and then it all went a bit squirrelly after that. But hey, I could be wrong. But some commenters charged Roberts with being as stupid as Dubya, and others charged that Roberts screwed up on purpose just to make Obama look bad. Some from the right flatly asserted it was Obama who screwed up the "faithful" part.

Sometimes I do wonder about our chances around here of ever finding any truth, when people can look at a video and disagree about what they see. There are no videos of the Founding.


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To return to "So help me God" for a moment, the secular activist Michael Newdow [for whom Ray Soller did research] recently sued to bar Justice Roberts from using "so help me God" in the oath for Obama to repeat, since the phrase doesn't appear in the oath of office as written.

Newdow lost his bid
for an injunction, but will appeal with an eye to 2013.

When Justice John Paul Stevens administered the oath to VP Joe Biden today, he said, "So help me God" for Biden to repeat, which he did.

However, Justice Roberts instead made it a question---"So help you God?"

"So help me God," replied President Obama.

Newdow's initial bid for an injunction was denied on First Amendment grounds of Obama's right to free expression of religion. It's possible that by turning the phrase into a question, Justice Roberts may have found a clever way around Newdow's very narrow argument that the Chief Justice, as a government official, cannot issue religious tests. Since one may swear or affirm in taking the oath, to tell the Chief Justice beforehand that one intends to swear might be enough to dodge the prohibition against religious tests.

Now, whether that argument would hold up throughout the appeal process, who knows? But I have no doubt that the Chief Justice rephrased "So help me God" as a question precisely with Michael Newdow and his ilk in mind. Or perhaps it was President Obama's idea. I think we'll find out more about this...

7 comments:

bpabbott said...

Tom: "It's possible that by turning the phrase into a question, Justice Roberts may have found a clever way around Newdow's very narrow argument that the Chief Justice, as a government official, cannot issue religious tests."

Good question, and if that was Roberts' intent, I find his solution to be a satisfactory accommodation.

Pinky said...

.
Asking a question seems, to me, to be the essence of what a test is all about.
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But, what should we expect?
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bpabbott said...

Pinky: "Asking a question seems, to me, to be the essence of what a test is all about."

Before I have to bear seeing the s-word again ... sigh ...

While I agree that tests must have questions, I don't see how the present example qualifies as a test for office.

Perhaps in four years the next President elect will test the test and we'll find out? ;-)

But I don't expect it.

Pinky said...

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I think the test was when Roberts asked Obama if he wanted God to help him.
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That's all I meant.

Brian Tubbs said...

Barack Obama had already communicated to the Chief Justice ahead of time that he wished "so help me God" to be included.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, there was nothing single-handed about my efforts. Mathew Goldstein explains it this way in his website "So help me God" in presidential oaths in which he has meticulously summarized the total efforts of those involved.

In the Preface section, Matt explains:
    The research for this article is a collaborative effort with contributions from many individuals. At the end of November, 2004, Attorney Michael Newdow sent an e-mail to the Director of the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University to see whether he could obtain more information about the 1789 bill to regulate the taking of an oath or affirmation as prescribed by Article six of the Constitution. Director Charlene Bickford's reply included the following comment about George Washington's first presidential oath of office recitation: "After much back and forth with the editors of the 'Papers of George Washington' [namely, Senior Editor Philander D. Chase, University of Virginia] and research in the sources [Documentary History of the First Federal Congress] that we have here, we were unable to locate any contemporary account [among the many eyewitness & newspaper accounts] that reported that he said those words." Mr. Newdow promptly passed this information to a historical and legal researcher and writer who requests anonymity and the late USAF LT. COL (Ret) Glen P. Goffin. Ray Soller and Mathew Goldstein also joined the research effort. This article is being written by Mathew Goldstein.

Brad Hart said...

I did enjoy the "slip up" during the Oath of Office. It will make a fun little tidbit of history down the road.

Perhaps Justice Roberts was a little flustered, due to the fact that he was swearing in a man who vehemently opposed his nomination to the Supreme Court???