Friday, January 8, 2010

Peter Lillback on GW & SHMG

Our own Ray Soller has done yeoman's work demonstrating the lack of evidence in the historical record that Washington added the words "So Help Me God" to his oath of office. He's also shared that work with Peter Lillback. Yet, Lillback persists in positing the notion that GW said SHMG.


Brian Tubbs said...

The Chief Justice (or whoever gives the oath) should NOT insist, require, expect, or encourage the incoming President to say "so help me God." The CJ should stick with the constitutional oath and only that.

IF THE INCOMING PRESIDENT, however, wishes to say the words, then he/she can communicate that desire ahead of time to the CJ or he/she can just say the words on their own. That's their right.

To that extent, I agree with the harping on the SHMG issue. But beyond that, it's gotten a little (and I say this as respectfully as I can) ridiculous.

Because, whether GW said SHMG after the oath, he most assuredly called on God's help during his inaugural speech. Thus, for GW's oath, it's a distinction without a difference.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I agree entirely with your solution and I think, with the wisdom of Solomon, no reasonable person on either side could disagree with it.

Re harping on the footnotes about GW & SHMG,...well, it goes with the territory of being a scholarly footnoter. Academics can tend to get obsessed with their pet theories. :)

Ray Soller said...

An AC blog post describing my attendance at the Feb. 6, 2007 National Constitution Center sponsored program, Washington: Devout or Deist is available here. Peter R. Henriques, author of Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington was a selected participant on the program along with Pastor Peter A. Lillback, author of George Washington’s Sacred Fire, and Jana Novak, co-author of Washington’s God. John J. DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania served as the program moderator. (DiIulio has written a book, Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future, which proposes a bipartisan approach to faith-based policy-making.) This is the first time that Pastor Lillback was publicly confronted with the fact that there is no firsthand evidence supporting the notion that George Washington added "so help me God" to his presidential oath. A podcast of the event is available here.

Ray Soller said...

Brian Tubbs wrote:
IF THE INCOMING PRESIDENT, however, wishes to say the words [SHMG], then he/she can communicate that desire ahead of time to the CJ or he/she can just say the words on their own. That's their right.

The president has amble oportunity to say whatever he pleases in his inaugural address. In the current case, Newdow v. Roberts, Michael Newdow is not disputing what the president can say on his own, but he is disputing the manner in which those rights/duties of the CJ and the president, as defined by the Constitution, are carried out.

So, Brian and Jon, with your combined wisdom, please tell me just exactly how a "reasonable person" is supposed to dermine if something is a "little rediculous" or not other than by falling back to the guidelines as defined by the Constitution.

Brad Hart said...

Well, I think Lillback is a quasi-Barton so I think he is just another member of the ever-growing crowd that chooses to infuse one's political and religious angle into history. Having read a good portion of his book, "Sacred Fire" I am convinced that Lillback will not believe anything other than what his personal angle permits him.

I guess this is simply the antithesis of The Godless Constitution As Tom is fond of saying, this is just more "history by polemic."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yah, Brad. I've found the objections here [and hitherto] to Lilliback pretty solid, and so, I have no interest in reading him, and I certainly wouldn't quote him.

Once your conclusions are more important to you than the facts, I think you lose any scholarly benefit of the doubt.

IF THE INCOMING PRESIDENT, however, wishes to say the words, then he/she can communicate that desire ahead of time to the CJ or he/she can just say the words on their own. That's their right.

That's what appeared to have happened with Justice Roberts and President Obama. In fact, as I recall, Roberts made it more a question, as in

Roberts: So help me God?
Obama: So help me God.

I did a little piece on it here at the time:

and Brian followed up:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, I see I wrote that Roberts asked "So help you God?" Interesting, for the reasons mentioned in the original post.

Jonathan Rowe said...

And indeed Robert's asking "So Help You God" I think is direct effect of Newdow making an issue of it.

Ray Soller said...

The Newdow v. Roberts case is still hovering around. The American Humanist Situation reported:
"(Washington, D.C., December 15, 2009) The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard oral arguments today in Newdow v. Roberts, a case that challenges the infusion of religion into presidential inaugural ceremonies". See Federal Court Hears Oral Arguments in Newdow v. Roberts.

The article contains a link to the full text of the complaint. The article also tells how, "despite the objections of the plaintiffs, court opened with the cry 'God save the United States and this Honorable Court.' Last week, they had filed an emergency motion in attempt to have the court abstain from the opening cry."

Brian Tubbs said...

Brad and Tom, I think you're a bit unfair to Lillback. I believe he's very intelligent, well-meaning, and sincere. He may be incorrect in some of his points, but that doesn't mean he's untrustworthy or unworthy of our attention.

Brian Tubbs said...

Ray, the solution to this oath thing is simple...

Whether "so help me God" is tacked on to the end of the oath is up to the incoming President. If he/she wants it, he/she can request it or just simply say it after the oath has been given.

If you're saying, Ray, that a President-elect should NOT have the right to add those words to the oath, then, yes, your position is "ridiculous." Sorry. No disrespect intended, but it's a ridiculously extreme position.

Now, I agree with YOU that a President-elect shouldn't be manipulated, pressured, or forced (in ANY way) to say those words. The Chief Justice should, preferably, NOT say them at all, unless the incoming President requests it. But if he/she does make that request, the CJ can and should accommodate.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I'll tell you something that bothered me about Lillback. I agree that he's intelligent and produces some good scholarship. And, based on his public appearances, he's a very likable, reasonably sounding guy.

As you know, we academics can get a bit obsessed when chasing footnotes. Lillback spent all these years researching the record and produced a 1200 page book with hundreds of pages of fineprint footnotes. Much of book could have been edited and we would still end up with a "tome." A respectable publishing house would never let him get away with that.

He and his supporters can spin this into an accomplishment; but most folks admit they couldn't get thru the whole book (I did and I use that as a bragging right, saying I'm probably one of a handful of people to do that).

Still, that's not what really irked me about Lillback. It's his oft-disrespectful tone directed towards Paul F. Boller.

I understand his anger towards Boller. Boller's work is the standard bearer authority. Boller categorized GW as a "Deist." Other scholars cite Boller's authority. And so on.

And, noted, Boller's book isn't perfect. It was written in 1963 and the historical enterprise uncovers new facts. Lillback did that and good for him.

However, Lillback tries to "bury" Boller with quantity and in the meantime treats him very disrespectfully. I know I was hard on Lillback with this post and categorizing parts of his analysis as logically fallacious. But I'm treating Lillback no better than he treats Boller.

And after getting through the exhaustive record on GW and Religion, Lillback doesn't offer anything of quantity or substance to refute Boller's thesis (that GW wasn't an orthodox Trinitarian Christian). They just draw different conclusions. Boller agrees GW didn't believe in a distant watchmaker God. Lillback offers lots of material to rebut that GW was a "Deist" in that respect. But there still is little if anything that demonstrates GW an orthodox Christian.

Ray Soller said...

Here's an excerpted response from Prof. Burton Caine in what was an internet roundtable exchange between Brent Walker, myself, and other interested parties that was dated 8/19/2009 where the subject was Newsweek's On Faith - Obama Should Seek Divine Blessings the Way He Sees Fit

Burton Caine wrote: My view is that the president is prohibited from adding SHMG. The purpose of using quotation marks in Art II - and nowhere else in the Constitution - is to prohibit the pres from adding or changing anything.This is bolstered by the words in Art II,1,8, "Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation." I emphasize 2 words : SHALL and FOLLOWING. Since "oath" might be interpreted by some as implying a religious form or reference, Art II prevents both by extending the option of Affirmation instead of oath and commanding the exact words to be said which excludes such possibility.

Moreover, since this is an official act, adding SHMG violates the First Amendment establishment clause. When the CJ administers SHMG that is a separate violation. It also refutes the argument that the the pres has taken the prescribed oath and thereafter volenteers a comment.

I do not consider the addition of SHMG de minibus, as I would not if the substitution is "so help me Jesus" or "Allah Akhbar." Indeed, I ask my students whether we have a president if Art II is not followed exactly since the pres cannot enter upon office without complying with the Constitution.

Even if it were true that every pres added SHMG, that would not change the result. History is irrevelant when the language of the Constitution is so apodictic.
[end excerpt]

I can't say with any conviction whether Prof. Caine is being "rediculously extreme" or not by advocating his position, but when President-elect Obama indicated to CJ Roberts that he wished him to amend the presidential oath by having him ask, "So help you God?," he did this by unduly using the influence of his office, which ended up having CJ Roberts look like a bumbling Obama puppet.

Jonathan Rowe said...

As Ray knows (others might not) Caine was my First Amendment and Antitrust Prof. at Temple Law.

He was a hoot.

Brian Tubbs said...

I'm trying to think of a nice word than "ridiculous" to describe Caine's view, but I'm having a tough time. :-)

He's right that the President-elect MUST say the oath as-is. But once the oath is complete, if he/she wants to say "so help me God" or "yay! I did it!" or "I'm the king of the world!" then, he/she can do so! And the Constitution has not been broken.

I guess the sticking point is whether the CJ should prompt him/her even if asked to do so. I say "yes," but I understand, Ray, that you disagree. And that's fine.

Ray Soller said...

Brian Tubbs wrote:
"I'm trying to think of a nice word [other] than 'ridiculous' to describe [Prof.] Caine's view [See NYT's 2/5/1989 Letter to the Editor], but I'm having a tough time."

Well Brian, I can think of another term. How about, "arguably incorrect," or even "fallacious"?

The catch with your argument is where you say, "But once the oath is complete, if he/she wants to say [blah - blah - blah], then he/she can do so!" Now, I'm asking, does that occur when the CJ and/or President lower their arm from the square, when the President takes his hand from the Bible, or just prior to when the CJ says, "Congratulations, Mr. President!"?

Being the poor street-loose, Bronx-kid that I am, I have the opinion that it's not any time before the moment when the CJ offers his congratulations. Anything before then gives the erroneous appearance that what occurred is sanctioned by the Constitution. After all, it is the CJ administering the oath. (In the case of Chancellor Livingston, the conclusion of the oath occurred when Livingston shouted, "It is done!")

Now even if one could explain the CJ's conduct as an "implied power," shouldn't the CJ exercise an abundance of caution to not add what is clearly meant to be a religious test?