Is ‘so help me God’ still appropriate in oath?

Published 9:31 am Tuesday, January 20, 2009

When President-elect Barack Obama took office today, he recited the prescribed oath — and then Chief Justice John Roberts asked him to repeat four additional words found nowhere in the Constitution: “So help me God.”

If Michael Newdow was watching, he was not happy. Last month, the high-profile atheist filed suit to enjoin the chief justice from adding “so help me God” — and to bar the Presidential Inaugural Committee from sponsoring clergy-led prayers.

Newdow did not prevail. Either the lawsuit was dismissed for lack of standing (no showing of sufficient injury) or failed because the court views inaugural prayers much like legislative prayers upheld by the Supreme Court in Marsh v. Chambers (1983).

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But win or lose, Newdow has stirred a heated discussion about the meaning and scope of “no establishment” of religion under the First Amendment.

Polls tell us that the majority of Americans support the principle of church-state separation but think Newdow goes too far. Most people want and expect presidential inaugurations to have prayers and references to God.

But however unpopular, Newdow pushes us to think about why we insist on ceremonial religion on state occasions. Even if courts continue to uphold such practices, are they consistent with our national commitment to uphold religious freedom for believers and nonbelievers alike?

Some proponents of public religion argue from tradition: Didn’t George Washington himself add “so help me God” to the oath — and hasn’t every president since followed his example? And hasn’t clergy-led prayer always solemnized these occasions, reminding us of our religious heritage?

Actually, the answer is “no” to all of the above. 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.

Of course, Washington may not have felt the need to mention God in the oath (or have a member of the clergy pray), as his inaugural address was filled with references to the Almighty — and even included a prayer.

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 percent belong to every religion imaginable — and 16 percent say they have no religious affiliation.

Take, for example, the current brouhaha surrounding Obama’s choice of pastors at inaugural events. His selection of the Rev. Rick Warren, a prominent evangelical, to deliver the invocation has created an outcry from the left. His choice of Gene Robinson, an openly gay Episcopal bishop, to pray at a pre-inaugural event has caused a stir on the right. Clearly, the “good old days” when the Rev. Billy Graham or anyone else could be called the “nation’s pastor” are long gone.

One prayer no longer fits all, if it ever did. 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.

After the inauguration, of course, all who wish to do so can attend (or view on television) the prayer service at the National Cathedral, with real prayers and real sermons free and separate from any civil ceremony.

For many people of faith, state invocations of God and to-whom-it-may-concern prayers tend to squeeze the life out of authentic religious expression. Roger Williams, an early Founder and fierce advocate of religious freedom, went even further by condemning such practices as blasphemous.

That’s why some of the very people who now oppose Newdow’s lawsuit might consider rooting for it to succeed.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C.