On June 30th Steven Green took his turn at the current round of discussions at the Cato Institute, and opined that a “religionist interpretation of the founding” from those like Mark Hall and his colleagues (namely Daniel Dreisbach) offer conclusions with which he disagrees.
I fully agree. By way of explanation, let’s start off where Michael Meyerson, in his book, Endowed by Our Creator, deconstructs Washington's Presidential "So help me God" oath story:
Given this evidence of [Washington’s inaugural address that fully illustrates his] religious conviction, it is curious that so much emphasis has been placed on the uncertain story of Washington’s oath. It is discomforting to hear Justice Scalia treat a story of uncertain validity as historical fact. In an attempt to prove religion has never been “strictly excluded from the public forum,” Scalia asserted: “George Washington added to the form of Presidential oath prescribed by Art. II, par 1, cl.7, of the Constitution, the concluding words, ‘so help me God.’” Such an assertion weakens the largely accurate point he is trying to prove; if the factual predicate of his argument is doubtful, the persuasiveness of his reasoning is weakened.
Part of the appeal of Washington’s oath story is that it permits advocates to quote Washington using the word “God.” In most of his public addresses as president, Washington, instead used expressions as “Providence,” “Heaven,” “Director of Human Events,” and the “Grand Architect.” Any argument based on Washington’s use of religious language becomes more persuasive to modern ears if the more familiar word “God” can be attributed to him.
The oath story also permits partisans to link religious statements made by modern presidents with the utterance made by Washington. One commentator has written: “The hand of the past is palpable on every occasion of the taking of the presidential oath; every president has followed the lead of George Washington in adding the words, ‘so help me God’ after the formal, prescribed constitutional oath.” This statement is entirely without factual foundation; neither John Adams, nor Thomas Jefferson, nor James Madison uttered the phrase. The first eyewitness documentation of any president saying “so help me God" is Chester Arthur in 1881. The power of [religionist] history, however, would be considerably diminished if one were reduced to claiming the tradition dates to Chester Arthur.
Now, when it comes to Mark Hall & Daniel Dreisbach, Washington’s presidential oath story illustrates Meyerson’s point.
When Hall says “it is eminently reasonable to infer from the lack of records that he [Washington] added those words [SHMG].” I ask, who, but a religious enthusiast is listening to that claim?
Dreisbach, in concert with Hall, observes that “these additional words [SHMG] have become so engrafted into presidential tradition that one commentator has argued, somewhat fancifully, that “in a real sense, then we have a religious oath of office as a result of a constitutional amendment adopted through the precedent-setting action of the first chief executive.” (See James E. Pfander, 1999, pg 551; also Espinosa, 2009, pg 57.)
The difference between Pfander and Dreisbach is that Pfander, back in 1999, could unwittingly claim “'So help me God' has become a regular feature of the event ever since” [Washington’s first inauguration], and Pfander, therefore, had no qualms about introducing the notion that this supposed regular occurrence had, in effect, produced a “constitutional amendment.”
In contrast, Dreisbach (2017) is quite aware that “in recent years, commentators have questioned whether Washington, in fact, uttered the phrase So help me God, or whether the words are erroneously attributed to the first president long after the event,” [since] “ this part of the narrative lacks contemporaneous confirmation.” Nonetheless, Dreisbach, even if somewhat fancifully, has no problem giving bandwidth to a religiously framed "So help me God" constitutional amendment.
Addendum: Mark Hall in the Conclusion section (page 152) of his myth busting book (hard bound edition), goes even further than Pfander’s understanding of SHMG having been a “regular feature” during the presidential oath, where he plugs the fanciful notion that “from an originalist perspective, the Establishment Clause provides no bar to exempting religious minorities from general laws, including “so help me God” [my italics] in the Pledge of Allegiance.”