Thursday, July 9, 2020

Meyerson Deconstructs Washington's Presidential Oath Story


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 foundingfrom 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.

11 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

FTR, historically speaking, I lean heavily against the proposition that GWash uttered "so help me God."

That said, once again I strongly dispute the premise here

Pfander, therefore, had no qualms about introducing the notion that this supposed regular occurrence had, in effect, produced a “constitutional amendment.”


I would put it this way: Taking the existence of God as a given was not considered a matter of "religion" and thus an "establishment" of religion.

The existence of God was "self-evident." That there was a "Supreme Judge of the world" was self-evident. The ratification of the Constitution did not undo the Declaration, did not disestablish the existence of God as a FACT and not just one theory among any.


To the ratifiers' understanding, "religion" referred to the particulars of God's existence and nature, and not even the infidels Jefferson and Paine saw God's existence as a matter for religious difference or dispute. The Constitution NEVER would have been ratified with the understanding that it disputed God's very existence!!


We must take a step back from the Michael Newdows of the world, whose arguments are, historically speaking, absurd.

Our Founding Truth said...

The ffs established the ecumenical God of deism as the God of the nation, which is why they put nature's God in the doi. It wasn't jehovah either because jehovah isnt named and He cannot be accessed apart from Christ. Therefore, their god was nature's god, which is no god at all.

They can say what they want, but it doesnt follow jehovah was the God of the founding. No matter what they wrote, they did not list jehovah in the founding documents. Plus, only a fool would do that because they weren't Jews, nor did they worship Judaism. Claiming you're a Christian or a jew means nothing in relation to the God of the nation.

They were ignorant no doubt about it.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well my opinion is they invoked an ethically monotheistic God who is not necessarily the God of any particular sectarian religious creed. But could be, if the believer finds a way in his conscience to connect this more generic God to his more specific religious tradition.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It wasn't jehovah either because jehovah isnt named and He cannot be accessed apart from Christ.


That is a religious opinion, not a historical one, Jim.
https://www.biblicalunitarian.com/100-scriptural-arguments-for-the-unitarian-faith

There is ZERO evidence the God of the Founding was ever anything other than the Biblical one, Jon--including in Jefferson and Paine's public utterances.


Our Founding Truth said...

invoked an ethically monotheistic God who is not necessarily the God of any particular sectarian religious creed. But could be, if the believer finds a way in his conscience to connect this more generic God to his more specific religious tradition

That's not the God of the bible at all. Either it's Him or it isn't.



.

Our Founding Truth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Our Founding Truth said...

""There is ZERO evidence the God of the Founding was ever anything other than the Biblical one, Jon--including in Jefferson and Paine's public utterances.""

This has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with text and the meaning of words. The biblical God's name is Christ, since jehovah cannot be accessed except by His Son. Nature's god is the god of deism, matching one of its definitions mentioned on Cato unbound.

Paine and TJ's words are not words of the people written in their social covenant as the foundation of the union and therefore mean nothing. Hs words are what he wanted the people to believe but have no authority because his words weren't made by the people.

Tom Van Dyke said...

This has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with text and the meaning of words. The biblical God's name is Christ, since jehovah cannot be accessed except by His Son

That is YOUR religious opinion.

https://www.biblicalunitarian.com/100-scriptural-arguments-for-the-unitarian-faith

Jehovah is just as much God as Christ is. He is the same God and no other.

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