Did George Washington spontaneously add “So help me, God” to his conclude his inaugural oath in New York City in 1789? I used to think so, but recent research suggests that the evidence is not strong, and the question is far more open than I (and many others) long believed. The issue is not only academic: the research into the historicity of the story has come to public attention of late as part of a lawsuit filed by Michael Newdow, who would like to enjoin Chief Justice John Roberts from prompting Barack Obama to say “So help me, God” on the steps of the Capitol on Inauguration Day.
My own view of this is Madisonian. In retirement at Montpelier, the Father of the Constitution warmed himself with mittens and a cap–and the occasional brandy–as he mused on questions about the Union, and about church and state. “The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion,” Madison wrote, debating whether the appointment of congressional chaplains was compatible with the First Amendment and with the ideal of religious liberty. “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative.” Both pragmatic and wise, though, Madison concluded that “as the precedent is not likely to be rescinded, the best that can now be done may be to apply to the Constitution the maxim of the law, de minimis non curat”–Latin for “the law does not concern itself with trifles.” Given the force of tradition, Madison was saying, it was the better part of wisdom to avoid attempting to secularize something–in this case the chaplaincies–that many people believed to be organic and customary.
I think “So help me, God” falls in this category. Even if Washington did not say it in 1789, he did believe that religion had a role to play in the life of the republic. This is not to argue that the Founders were apostles in knee-britches; far from it. They had every opportunity to insert sectarian Christian language and imagery into our founding documents, and resolutely declined to do so. Still, they understood that religion was an essential element in the lives of many of their countrymen, and political leadership was about creating a government that to some degree reflected the values and vision of the populace. A republic is, after all, a “public thing,” not a clinical appendage. It was–and is–a matter of common sense for the nation’s most public moments, then, to include a nod to the religious if the leader of those moments finds such nods congenial, and Obama clearly does.
Even the coolest of presidents (pre-Obama), John Kennedy, believed in acknowledging the nation’s religious experience, twice alluding to the New Testament in his inaugural address and concluding with the phrase, “On earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” I once asked Ted Sorensen, the author of the speech, whether he and President Kennedy had worried such language might offend atheists. If they had, Sorensen replied, they would have been the first writers of a political speech to have ever done so.
Sorensen was right: religious language, imagery and even observance has been with us always. There is no doubt, for example, that Washington attended services on the first Inauguration Day at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York, and he, like most of the Founders, spoke in broad but unmistakable terms about “that Almighty Being who rules over the universe.” Jefferson grounded our fundamental human rights in the divine when he wrote of the “Nature’s God” and the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence, and the Continental Congress began–after a fight–with a prayer offered by a clergyman.
The secular nature of the American government is one of its abiding strengths, but moments of prayer or a “So help me, God” here and there are no threat to the wall of separation Jefferson spoke of in his New Year’s Day 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. We can keep church and state separate, and we should. But as a matter of history and human nature, we cannot keep politics and religion separate, and we should not try. For politics and religion are both about people, about their hopes and their fears and their values and their sense of destiny and of duty. If a president wishes to invoke God–whoever or whatever that word may mean to him, or to his audience–then let him. Madison called it, by implication, a “trifle”; I would add a small amendment to that. Think of inaugural religiosity as a political version of Pascal’s Wager.
If there is a God, maybe He’ll help with the economic bailout. If there is not, well, some atheists and others may be briefly offended, but let us be honest: that is a small price to pay if it turns out Washington’s “Almighty Being” really is tuning in on Tuesday.