Oath to God Shows Regard for Church

Did George Washington spontaneously add “So help me, God” to his conclude his inaugural oath in New York City in … Continued

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 Both pragmatic and wise, though, Madison concluded that “as the precedent is not likely to be rescinded, the best that can now be done may be to apply to the Constitution the maxim of the law, de minimis non curat”–Latin for “the law does not concern itself with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.

Jon Meacham
Written by

  • Willis E. Elliott

    Amen to “we cannot keep politics and religion separate, and we should not try.”America’s genius has been the co-functioning of a religious people with a secular government. Secularists hope for the destruction of this genius by the conversion of a religious people into a secular people. Samuel Huntington’s response was to remind America that we are a particular civilization (in founding, English-speaking Protestant) with a “creed” of distinct values, and that equality is only one of those values.I add that judicial decisions have increasingly used equality as the control value, the decisive sanction. Our public schools have been teaching egalitarianism, so much so that I coined the term “egalianity” as a portmanteau for the increasing sacrality of equality as a displacement for Christianity: it substitutes “egal-” for “Christ-.”

  • twmatthews

    A common sense approach but one that denies history. The danger is not that a sprinkling of “Oh God” here and there might offend the atheistic minority of this country. The danger lies in the preoccupation of fundamental religious people who want to extend their religion into government.America didn’t always pledge allegiance “under God”. We, as Americans, should be able to pledge our allegiance to America and nothing else. There’s no real benefit to our money stipulating that we trust in God. Like the pledge of allegiance, the Christian majority, seeing persecution behind every attempt to separate government from religion, overreacts and thrusts religion even more squarely into governmental business.Whereas you see harmless rhetoric in God’s name, I see religious encroachment in government at all levels. And after 8 years of George Bush, we’ve come to accept public displays of faith as being normal, even required. Do you remember a time when presidential candidates’ faith became fair ground for questioning like it has been since Bush was elected?Can you imagine the cry that would be raised had Lyndon Johnson claimed that God told him to stay in Vietnam?

  • B2O2

    America is a secular state. If people want a Bronze Age religion-based government, they should move to Kabul. I hear that is working out really well for the locals there.

  • Farnaz2

    “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.”If, in fact, there were “a wall of separation,” the inaugural oath would be no more the termite than it is now. However, there is not. We have the obscenity of “Faith-Based Funding,” tax exempt status for institutions of religion, which endlessly violate the requirement that they stay out of politics. Presidents asking the reigning Pope or the Fundie of the Month for his/her opinion on stem cell research or choice shows the cynicism in these political absention requirements.Let the politicos swear away at every inauguration, for all I care, that is, once we’ve built that now chimerical wall of separation, and posted honest guards beside it.

  • bmccormick

    Madison is correct that “the law does not concern itself with trifles,” and this is a trifle. We should keep in mind the purpose of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. “They seek to avoid that divisiveness based upon religion that promotes social conflict, sapping the strength of government and religion alike.” Van Orden v. Perry (Breyer concurring). Those who take an absolutist stand over “trifles” risk social conflict that may energize a movement to amend the Constitution to strike the establishment clause from the 1st Amendment.Regarding the framers’ intent, it is worth noting that Congress employed a chaplain at the time they ratified the First Amendment. see Marsh v. Chambers.I would much rather see our establishment clause enrgies focused on the political campaigning conducted by tax-exempt churches, “faith based” government programs, and vouchers for parochial schools.

  • dgblues

    It’s a government endorsement of the existence of a supreme invisible sky being. That’s what it is.You don’t swear by saying “So help me Santa Claus” do you?Let’s not deny it is what it is: a bone thrown repeatedly to the pious at the expense of the free thinker. Period. Same with the Pledge of Allegiance and “under God,” an afterthought, a remnant of the Cold War Red Scare, not unlike the Terror War Muslim Scare we’re experiencing today. I for one will not speak the phrase as it is an affront to the very allegiance to which we swear.Same with the currency. Same with all this other godspeak. Gotta squeeze in that god thing just to prove to everybody who’s in charge, all the while complaining that any views to the contrary are tantamount to persecution.Just like Bertrand Russell warned us: wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross. And forever making up excuses for the inexcusable, a game where one only plays the role of being open-minded, and only in order to further the agenda of the oppressive majority. “Oh, pooh-pooh, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not all that important. Move along; no need to look here; nothing to see here.” Well, if it’s all the same to you then, why, let’s just not do it. Let’s see whose panties all bunch into a twist at that suggestion.

  • jhbyer

    If the law does not concern itself with trifles, and it shouldn’t, why should our president? When being sworn in, he trivializes the moment with a nod to what the Constitution in its greater wisdomCapitulating to popular sentiment is not the virtue Meacham would have it be. Washington succumbed to an ordinary political vice We in the 21st century can go him one better by obeying the Constitution.

  • linguist64

    As usual, the atheists are in full force again today on, paradoxically, a Religious Forum. And, as usual, they are completely out of step with the overwhelming majority of Americans. You enjoy your freedom of speech, and I’ll enjoy my freedom of religion (which, by the way, emanate from the same 1st amendment).

  • hemnebob

    personally speaking, i like the comments to god eliminated from schools, courts and anything else that is outside of the church and public. my spirituality is sacred and private, it is none of your business and none of the government’s business and according to the constitution, separate from state issues. why people (like you) wish to make it part of the rest of our lives is just a controlling factor of people who possibly have no other control over themselves, their lives and or anyone else’s lives within their reaches…i say, repeat it yourself…pray in school but do it privately, don’t interupt the rest of us, maybe we already prayed earlier…pray for our new president but don’t force me to listen…it is private…it should be private and in some cases NEEDS to be private.sincerely.

  • raschumacher

    “So help me God” is not part of the oath that is explicitly prescribed by the Constitution. It is a superstitious tradition which in a better world would be omitted.

  • bluedogdemocrat1

    Brother George Washington was a mason, as I am. In our pledges to the almighty, we add so help me God. Washington could have very well added this to his inauguration; and other Master Masons were to follow down the road as President didn’t think anything of it to change it. Master Masons who are now sworn into office may say: “so help me God, and Keep me steadfast.” So Brother Washington may have added this because he was a Master Mason, and former Master of his lodge.

  • TomBishop1

    First of all, Pascal’s wager is a terrible argument, so if that’s how we think of inaugural religiosity, then that means we shouldn’t have any.But more importantly, I am appalled by the casual demonization of nonbelieving Americans presented in this column. It is cited from history as if that justifies it. As if to say “we regularly disenfranchise this group of people, so there is no harm in doing it.” Perhaps nonbelievers respond too mildly to the disenfranchisement.Then there is the idea that separation of religion and politics is a trifle. I cannot believe we are even having this argument after the “atheist” ads that were run by Elizabeth Dole in Georgia. It is true that Dole lost with those adds, but only because Hagan’s defense against them was that they were inaccurate and that she was a Sunday school teacher. Not a single politician or major news source put forward the argument that there is nothing wrong with taking donations and receiving honors from atheists. So would she have won if the “accusations” were true? What if a nonbeliever’s child wants to run for office? How many of his or her dreams have to be impossible solely because of his religion or lack thereof before we call that a legitimate form of oppression, rather than a mere trifle?

  • johng1

    No it’s not dude. Tell your god to step off!

  • jsigal007

    linguist64; As usual, an unintelligent and incoherent opinion from a religious bigot.Since when is something right just because it’s practiced by an overwhelming majority? While you’re at it, why don’t you go ahead and add the phrase “in this great nation of white people” and tell all non-white people to suck it up?I always feel bad about the people persecuted for being a minority. But at the same time there are some people that I can’t wait for them to be in that situation and learn their lessons the hard way.

  • DupontJay

    While the issue of government-sponsored preachers may have been “de minimis” in Madison’s day, the world has evolved. As compared to two centuries ago, far fewer people accept the existence of supernatural phenomena. And among those who do believe in supernatural beings, there is far more variety in those beliefs.The business world has recognized this evolution, and today, it is supremely uncommon for a corporate meeting to be opened with a prayer, or to include religious references in business documents. Government officials only persist in their frank religious pandering because they correctly perceive that, although it alienates and offends a minority, the majority of the mob will reward them for it with their votes.

  • Mitchavery7

    When married people get a tax break (I’m a 49 yo never-been-married by choice male) that is a violation of church and state. It is the US government rewarding marriage. Advocating for married people. If EVERYONE (single, married, gay, black, latino, asian etc…) were truly being treated EQUALLY we would all get the same tax breaks based on income, not very personal decisions. Same thing with injecting Dog into anything related to government. The US is way behind the times with this and Mr Obama has the chance to put things right. We don’t live in a Theocracy. That’s DEMocracy. For the first time ever in the US if you call a household in America only 49% actually have married people living there. In 1970 it was 72%. More than half of the homes in America have NO MARRIED people but they still get the tax breaks. Give me a break…

  • kengelhart

    “Oath to God Shows Regard for Church and State”The question is which church. It is clearly unambiguous which state we are referring to here, but what church will be implied? And does this implication confer any special status on a particular church. If an implication of special status for a particular church cannot be avoided, the statement constitutes “establishment of religion” as prohibited by the US Constitution.

  • Jon9

    I guess with that logic it would be perfectly appropriate for Obama conclude with “all praise to Allah” or is a “nod to the religious” only ok if it is a christian religion? I’m a realist, it would be political suicide to close with such a remark. However, the “it’s no big deal attitude” about the invocation in political speaches is hypocritical – its not a big deal only if it is soundly christian. That in turn calls into question the freedom of religon in general.

  • longstory

    God was supposed to be helping Bush. He stated they had “conversations”. Let’s hope this God likes Democrats better. Why do the religious never blame God when things go wrong?

  • coloradodog

    I would have no problem if evangelicals, Muslims, Mormons, Catholics and Jews were talking about an all-inclusive God of us all. The problem is that these Abrahamic religions all think they have their own exclusive God-in-a-box, everyone else be damned.

  • jhbyer

    Apparently, Obama feels pressure to prove he’s a Christian but not, as one might hope, the old fashioned way, through following Christ’s teachings. After all, anybody can act Christlike – God forbid, even a Muslim can be a good person.No, nowadays, to prove he’s a Christian, Obama must openly violate the US Constitution. Only this will distinguish him sufficiently to convince Evangelicals in lieu of gay-bashing, Jewbaiting, or warmongering.

  • agapn9

    The God of Abraham is the God of us all, there is only one God and while Catholics, Jews, and Muslims call Him by different names: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Yahweh, and Allah – we all call upon the same God. Anyone else that calls upon an all-Holy, all-knowing, all-powerful God is calling on that very same God. Intellectually it can be demonstrated that if you accept that the word ‘God’ has meaning there is only one infinite God.

  • kmdavisus

    “The God of Abraham is the God of us all, there is only one God and while Catholics, Jews, and Muslims call Him by different names: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Yahweh, and Allah – we all call upon the same God.”This is the problem. It’s not just atheists – where are the Buddhists in that sentence? Are they part of “we all”? No. Nor are the many other religious people of the United States who are marginalized into “The Other” by this routine assumption that the God of Abraham is some sort of Least Common Denominator.

  • respondus

    When the Christianists are willing to accept someone saying “So help me Allah” I will reconsider. But they are not. They do not really believe in religious diversity; they want help only from THEIR God. Until then Meacham is not only a poor historian but a poor thinker.And he has not answered the point that this shows contempt for people who do not believe in THEIR God. Another WP neo-con hack fighting his own little culture war. No doubt he also beleives we shouln’t presecute Christianists (like Bush) who torture and break other laws.

  • respondus

    “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.”Shorter Meachem: So, let’s offend others who disagree becasue Big Daddy God is more important than American citizens.Next he will say we should have a king; after all there is no democracy in his “HOLY BOOK” and it might please the “Almighty Being.”What a jacka$$.

  • hyjanks

    Under which god is the question, Mr. Meacham. Like coloradodog, I wouldn’t have much of a complaint if the god being referred to was a generic spook of the cosmos (although I think this reference would be just one tiny step removed from the idiocy and worthlessness of praying to a solitary god).

  • alltheroadrunnin

    John Meacham.Thank you for an essay (“Oath to God…”) on this Website that is reasonable. There are so few of them.

  • drdemented

    Of course no President or presidential speech-writer worries about offending atheists. Atheists do not form a voting block like religious groups. Atheists tend to think and to think independently. That makes it difficult for speech-writers, who tend to go for sound bites. Thinking people expect more than sound bites, thinking people expect substance. So, even though, “so help me, God” is not in the Constitutionally established oath, and whether or not George Washington added it spontaneously, reality makes no difference to religous blocks. All that matters is what they believe and to hell with everyone else, literally.

  • godlesspriest

    Your god will not save you from the financial crisis. Anyway, atheists learned to put up with the tyranny of the majority long ago. Do you really think every President believed in God? Or is it possible that a few ambitious men knew that faking it is one of the rituals of democracy in this country?

  • MikeMaloney

    Of course, Obama could simply “affirm” that he will uphold the Constitution, leave off the “so help me, God” and state he is following the instructions of Jesus who told his disciples: “Swear not at all, . . . but simply say yes or no.” MATT 5:34-37

  • StephenD11

    Apologists for the religious oath can’t actually engage in a real debate about its actual legality; their only argument is to cite history and precedent while marginalizing atheists as a demographic that nobody cares about. It took 89 years before the Supreme Court and the rest of government recognized that the 14th Amendment actually prohibited racial discrimination. If we’re serious about the Establishment Clause, then religious oaths and religious invocations at state-sponsored functions are unacceptable, PERIOD.

  • EAR0614

    I think the problem here is Meacham is not understanding what is really offensive to people and what is not inclusive of all. It is not that an individual President is religious and mentions God, it is when it is considered “normal”. Such as the pledge of allegiance and on money, as was mentioned in other comments, or, in this case, in the oath. The problem is not that Obama would like to say it, the problem is that it is part of the oath.And people who think they are being inclusive because its “non denominational” are just kidding themselves. It usually only applies to Christians, or at most all 3 of the Abrahamic faiths, but never does it extend to Buddhists, Hindus, pagans etc.We’re not asking for a ban on individuals expressing their religious beliefs, but a ban on institutionalizing it, especially in a way that only includes Christianity.

  • ambyguity

    I am an atheist and I support the complaint to ban “so help me god” and prayer at the inauguration. If we really dig deep into this country’s tradition, we find a bunch of religious minorities fleeing a country where they were being persecuted only to land among indigenous people who had little idea who their “god” was because they had their own pantheon of animistic gods. I’m offended by Meachem’s comments that it’s okay to offend “some atheists and others.” One of the things that makes America great is that the Constitution protects all the people the majority tramples. In this wonderful document the power is implicitly given to the people. The government represents all of those people, and as such, they should honor all people and not include words of division in its ceremonies and practices. Imagine if Barack Obama were to pay homage to his Hawaiian roots and connections and instead of saying “so help me god” he said “so help me Akua.”

  • willemkraal

    oh jezus maria pleeze lets do away with all this hokus/pokus , religion is a scam a total fraud, who need this bs????

  • chatard

    Although a citation of a statement made by a founding father is valid in giving historical context to the rise of the American polity, what Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to a group of Baptists in 1802 is not found in either the actual documents of 1776 or 1787 or in any law Congress has never passed respecting an establishment of religion. You give the impression that those who make utterances are to be forgiven, even though they are violating THE WALL. In so doing you, and others, supply ammunition. Do you do it knowingly? THE WALL is a song by Pink Floyd and something Jamie Gorelick and others put up to confound the fact finders.

  • bhuang2

    What a Bushism”A small price to pay”For what? Violating separation of church and state?Sounds like the logic Bush used to invade Iraq:A lie to the American public is a “small price to pay” to initiate a war.or tortureTorturing innocents so that we actually torture a guilty party is a “small price to pay” to get information to save other lives.Screening DOJ applicants based on their extracurricular activities is a “small price to pay” to make sure that the DOJ doesn’t enforce civil rights.”small price” indeed…..

  • FredEvil

    “we cannot keep politics and religion separate, and we should not try”Could not disagree more. VEHEMENTLY.Keep YOUR religion out of MY government, and I’ll keep MY religion out of YOURS.Deal? Or shall we begin the animal sacrifices as demanded by my deity? I’d love to see someone sworn in, and castrate a goat at the same time. My Lord and Savior would relish that moment for millenia!

  • dcarrmedford

    Mr. Meacham’s comments are, as usual, well-conceived and thoughfully expressed. I would challenge all those who support or defend the “So Help Me God” and “Under God” on our currency: would you support this if the phrase were changed to “Under Jesus” or, “Under Allah”? I think either option (I will let you guess which one would be more unpopular) would widen the divide that separates the monotheists from the secular/athiests; It would divide Christians from Jews and Muslims, many of whom are not believers in Jesus. That is what us non-believers have been arguing for decades: that while about 80% of Americans believe “In God”, they don’t believe in the SAME God. It is simply not worth the effort and backlash to remove “God” from the currency, Pledge or Inaugural; however it IS worth making sure that God is not inserted into the lives of Americans who do not believe via the will of the majority.

  • Isildur

    Did you expect more sensitivity from the author of a starry-eyed biography of Andrew “Trail of Tears” Jackson?

  • EnemyOfTheState

    Prayers at state functions don’t bother me nearly as much as the attitude behind them: I believe a particular creed, and I believe it so much that I want everyone else to believe it too.Here’s an idea – keep your religion to yourself. If you just can’t help yourself and you have to talk about it, do it in church.

  • csintala79

    As long as the insertion of the phrase is not mandatory, it should be no big deal. From what I read, two presidents have chosen not to include an oath to God, affirming the oath instead: Herbert Hoover was adhering to the Quaker tradition of not swearing oaths, and Franklin Pierce, who also used a law book instead of a bible, because (?). From this is appears it is up to Obama whether or not he will refer to God. Given his stress on coming together and no drama, he will likely insert the standard language; he will seek to appease the largest constituency. As long as he has the option, it doesn’t bother me.

  • CCNL

    “So help me god” today means “So help me Immoral Majority” and BO is their leader!!!!

  • CCNL

    BO’s record to date:· addicted to nicotine,· leader of the Immoral Majority taking over for the Clintons,· invited a preacher to speak at the inaugural who is historically and theologically flawed and who hates mutual masturbation,· invited another preacher to speak at the inaugural who is also historically and theologically flawed and who is a mutual masturbator, · nominated Bill Richardson to be Secretary of Commerce. Richardson withdrew because he is being investigated by a federal grand jury for granting illegal state contracts,· nominated Timothy Geithner to be Secretary of the Treasury even though Mr. Geithner has filed erroneous tax returns for many years.