Last updated on: 5/28/2009 8:53:00 AM PST
Should the US President Say "So Help Me God" with a Hand on the Bible When Taking Office?
General Reference (not clearly pro or con)
"Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--'I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.'"
1788 - US Constitution (51 KB)
[Editor's Note: While saying "so help me God" is not mentioned in the Constitution it has become a traditional part of a presidential inauguration. In the Jan. 9, 2009 Washington Post article "No Proof Washington Said 'So Help Me God' -- Will Obama?," Beth Hahn, Historical Editor of the US Senate Historical Office stated, "The first eyewitness documentation of a president saying 'So help me God' is an account of Chester Arthur's Sept. 22, 1881, inauguration in the New York Times... When I made the video [So Help Me God, posted on the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies website], it was common wisdom that he [George Washington] said it, and I did not check it. After investigating this, I would say there is no eyewitness documentation that he did — or did not — say this." All presidents in an unbroken chain since FDR's 1933 inauguration, are known to have repeated the words, "so help me God," when the oath was administered to them.]
Roy S. Moore, JD, former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, wrote in his Sep. 2000 article "Putting God Back in the Public Square" published in USA Today:
"[N]either Jefferson nor any other officials in the early Republic understood separation between church and state to mean that the Federal government was precluded from recognizing the necessity of public worship or from permitting active support of opportunities for such worship. Indeed, they plainly recognized that the duty of civil government was to encourage public professions of faith...
Every president of the U.S. (with only one possible exception) has been administered the oath of office with his hand on the Bible, ending with the words 'so help me God.'...
Since the 1960s, judicial activists have made a concerted effort to banish God from the public square... We must not be silent while every vestige of God is removed from our public life and every public display of faith is annihilated. The time has come to recover the valiant courage of our forefathers, who understood that faith and freedom are inseparable and that they are worth fighting for."
Sep. 2000 - Roy S. Moore, JD
The US Department of Justice (DOJ), wrote in its Jan. 8, 2009 Federal Defendant's Opposition to Plaintiffs' Motion for a Preliminary Injuction (250 KB) for the Michael Newdow, et al. v. Honorable John Roberts Jr., et al. case that began on Dec. 30, 2008 and was dismissed Mar. 12, 2009:
"[I]t would defy reason to conclude that the members of the First Congress, who drafted the Establishment Clause, thought it to be violated by appending the words 'so help me God' to the presidential oath, when they included precisely those words in the judicial oath...
[T]he Supreme Court has unreservedly described oaths ending with the words 'so help me God' as consistent with the Establishment Clause, and has used them as a benchmark to measure the constitutionality of other government action...
That interest [the public interest] is best served by allowing the inaugural ceremony to proceed as planned, and in a manner wholly consistent with the practice of prayer at presidential inaugurations, and the affirmation 'so help me God,' that stretch back to President Washington's First Inauguration in 1789. There is no reason to 'reverse course' and abandon these longstanding and widely-accepted aspects of the inaugural ceremony."
Jan. 8, 2009 - US Department of Justice (DOJ)
Yisrael Rutman, Rabbi and Editor of E-geress online magazine, in his Jan. 12, 2001 article "Inauguration 2001: An Earth-Shaking Event," published in E-geress, stated:
"To be sure, the tradition of the President's oath of office is as old as the republic itself. The Founding Fathers were all steeped in the heritage of the Bible, and it was natural for them to incorporate the great book into the political process, even as they stipulated in the Constitution that the government 'shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion.' That clause was designed to avert the creation of a state religion, not to renounce religious belief altogether.
In order to answer our question, we must first understand what an oath---in Hebrew, a shavuah---is. It is more than an affirmation to uphold this or that commitment. The invocation of the name of G-d (while holding a Torah scroll or other sacred object) is to say that just as G-d's existence is firm and unchanging, so also is one's commitment to the task at hand. Even though, as mortals in a material world, we and our jobs do change, the intention is that our commitment is as strong and unwavering as we can make it.
If the individual is not able to carry out his oath faithfully, it is not only a violation of that solemn pact, it is a violation of the sanctity of our acknowledgment of G-d's existence. If one's commitment is supposed to be as firm as G-d's existence, and in the end, the commitment was not upheld, it is as if to say that G-d's existence is likewise weak and insubstantial. Death or illness would, of course, mitigate the wrong impression created by the failure to carry out the oath. A case of deliberate violation, for whatever reason, amounts to a desecration of the Divine Name...
Thus, swearing that one will eat a whole pizza with everything on it, or that today is the first day of the rest of your life, or that you will faithfully uphold the laws of the land when you have no intention of doing so, are all out of the question. But if you are Abraham setting out to build a nation of G-d, or (on a much lower level, to be sure), you are the incoming President of the United States, and fully intend to carry on with the moral responsibilities that come with the office, then the oath may very well be in order."
Jan. 12, 2001 - Yisrael Rutman
Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr., PhD, William M. Suttles Chair of Religious Studies at Georgia State University, wrote in his May 28, 2008 article "Godless Oaths of Office" published in the online magazine Religion Dispatches:
"Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution lays out exactly what oath the newly elected President is supposed to swear...
No mention of God, no mention of anything more than the individual conscience. The power of such conscience, and the virtues this presupposes, were believed to be enough. In short, the Founders were as vigilant about keeping invocations of 'God' out of our public civic discourse as the current fashion, in both parties, is to drag it in... [T]he country was more than thirty years old before a US President dared to invoke 'God' outright at such a civic ceremony...
Freedom of conscience cannot be forced to say more; it need not say more."
May 28, 2008 - Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr., PhD
Dan Barker, Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, stated in a Dec. 30, 2008 interview titled "'So Help Me God' Suit" on FOX's America's News HQ with Kimberly Guilfoyle:
"The presidential Inauguration is not a religious event. It is a secular event. Millions of good non-Christian Americans serve in the government and we don't believe in a god. We serve in the military. We sit on juries. We teach in the schools. This celebration is a secular celebration for all of us...
[W]e're... challenging Chief Justice Roberts for overstepping his authority in inserting the phrase, 'So help me God' into the presidential oath which is in the Constitution. That is un-American. It is unfair. It marginalizes. It makes those of us good Americans who don't believe in God second-class citizens. It's unfair."
Dec. 30, 2008 - Dan Barker
Charles C. Haynes, PhD, Senior Scholar at the First Amendment Center, wrote in his Jan. 18, 2009 commentary "Are 'So Help Me God,' Inaugural Prayer Still Appropriate?" posted on the First Amendment Center website:
"Despite what we may have learned in school, Washington did not add 'so help me God,' or at least there is no historical evidence of his having done so. The story of Washington adding these words to the oath didn't appear until 65 years after he was sworn in as president...
Not until 1881, when Chester A. Arthur becomes president after the assassination of James Garfield, do we have a documented case of 'so help me God' being added to the official oath. Today's practice of the chief justice's asking the president to repeat the phrase dates only to 1933. Moreover, clergy-led inaugural prayer is also of fairly recent vintage, having started in 1937...
As with so many stories about the practices of the Founders, historical reality often contradicts popular myth.
Beyond the question of tradition, we might ask what practices are relevant and appropriate in a pluralistic nation where 84% belong to every religion imaginable — and 16% say they have no religious affiliation...
We pray in different ways to different gods or to no god. Instead of clinging to the vestiges of a bygone era, perhaps it's time to acknowledge that civil religion, however generic, no longer represents the nation we have become.
Maybe it's time for the president-elect to add his own affirmation to the oath rather than keep 'so help me God' as a state ritual to be intoned by the chief justice. And rather than clergy-led prayer, maybe it's better to have a period of silent reflection, giving all Americans an opportunity to offer thoughts or prayers according to the dictates of their consciences."
Jan. 18, 2009 - Charles C. Haynes, PhD