Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Feb. 6, 2007 - National Constitution Center - Washington: Devout or Deist

Back on February 6, 2007, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia sponsored a program that was titled, Washington: Devout or Deist. 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 recently written a book, Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future, which proposes a bipartisan approach to faith-based policy-making.)

I made a special effort to attend, because Peter R. Henriques had given me an indication that if the opportunity arose, he would say a few words as to whether George Washington had added "So help me God" to his presidential oath. I was with my wife, Paula, and my fellow investigator, Matthew Goldstein. We were totally surrounded by two bus loads full of members from Pastor Lillback's Proclamation Presbyterian Church. By looking around, I imagined that everyone in the audience supported Lillback's repeated claims in his book that Washington appended "'So help me God' to his presidential oath of office (see Sacred Fire: pg 224, "The second religious precedent;" pg. 307, "Washington took the oath of office;" pg 418, "Probably the most startling example;" and pg. 504, "Washington clearly did not avoid." )

DiIulio did an excellent job as the moderator, and I was fascinated by the discussion that ensued under his direction.

Readers, who remember Jonathan's Positive Liberty blog, Marshall, Lillback, and Washington, will want to hear the discussion that took place. A podcast is available here. If the listener pays attention to the conversation as it develops from 28 minutes onwards, you'll see that Professor Henriques found an opening to challenge the notion that Washington had added a religious codicil to his oath of office.


Explicit Atheist said...

As an example of what I consider to be Lilliback's consistent religious bias being introduced into, and negatively impacting the reliability of, his scholarship, here is an excerpt from the Q&A at the event.

Matthew Goldstein:

Okay, I have a question about the content of Peter Lillback's book, Chapter 11, page 224, it says:

'The second religious precedent from Washington's inauguration that continues is the addition of the words "So help me God" to his presidential oath of office, which was spoken as Washington had his hand upon the scriptures opened to Genesis 49. These words were not and are not in the Constitution, but every subsequent president in America's history has said them following Washington's lead.'

The Hoover Library has an audio of Hoover's oath where he does not append "So help me God" to the end of his oath. I searched through the Library of Congress, the online newspaper data bases, microfilm. I looked at newspaper archives, google.com, and ancestry.com. I didn't any coverage in any newspaper where the oath recitation included "So help me God" with the exception of Chester Arthur in 1881. So, my question is: What is your source of this claim that every subsequent president in American history has said them?

Peter Lillback:

Probably, the first thing I should say is that don't trust me about anything after Washington.
[DiIulio in the background: Laughter - I don't think he is going to, but go ahead. Yah]
Okay. So, everything Washington and thereafter I will leave to the better [informed]. Obviously, I was quoting, at that point, what was a very generally understood viewpoint, and if that is incorrect, I'm quite prepared to be corrected.

But I do think, here's the important point about Washington and the oath is that first of all, we remember that Washington did say Sacred Fire of Liberty. He had a Masonic Bible that was there before him, and he placed his hand upon it, and he followed the constitutional language of not taking an affirmation, but he took an oath. Now it is important to understand the difference.

An affirmation was the ability to say I believe this is true, but it did not require you to affirm anything about deity. When you use the word oath in that era the word oath meant taking a vow that was sacred before God like the Sacred Fire. Now Washington is a Virginian. We can prove this, and this is very clear: he had taken maybe as many as ten to twelve oaths in his life to become a vestryman; to become a church warden; to become a surveyor; to do other things. And everytimes those oaths were taken in Virginia you added the words "so help me God." That was Virginian tradition. In fact, it was the American tradition, universally understood, because the word oath implied that you were saying this before God. And the words "So help me God," were not adding God to it. God was there when you took an oath. It was saying, I need help to keep what I just promised.

Phil Johnson said...

I enjoyed listening to the recorded discussion.
So, the debate goes on.
Regarding the point about G.W. and Free Masonry, it is important to know that the teachings are ALL 100% SYMBOLIC. Masonry was taken as a very serious matter during Revolutionary times and the oaths given and taken were considered to be solemn. G.W. was the Worshipful Master of his lodge. No small thing in his life, I am sure.