An apocryphal story has George Washington saying “So help me God” at the swearing-in ceremony of his Presidential Inauguration. While scholars debate the plausibility of this claim, what is known for sure is that many Americans today expect incoming Presidents to end their oath of office with those theological words. Yes, those words are theological–I’ll return to why in a bit.
The Presidential oath of office mandated by the Constitution merely requires the incoming President to swear to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”–no more, no less. Hence, the Constitution leaves it up to each new President to decide how he wishes to end the oath–whether right after the words, “United States”, or after adding “so help me God,” or, in some future time, with “so help me Shiva,” or with “Allahu Akbar.” Now do you agree that the words “so help me God” are theological?
For some, they violate the separation of Church and State. Indeed, a lawsuit has been filed by the atheist Michael Newdow (a level-7 atheist on the Dawkins scale?) challenging the right of almost-President Barack Obama to use them at his Inauguration. Since Obama wants to say them, the issue seems (to this naked theologian anyway) to be one of freedom of speech and religion rather than one of separation of Church and State.
Could “so help me God” somehow ’strengthen’ the new President’s resolve to keep his oath? The German-Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, made the following observation in a book he penned the year the American Revolution was about to stir in France (1783). Oaths invoking God, he wrote, “give rise to no new duties.” In other words, oaths invoking God do not change the fact that the person, by dint of swearing to do something, has promised to make good on an obligation. Oaths, Mendelssohn argued, “merely serve to awaken” the conscience. He also wisely observed that a truly honest person has not need of additional mechanisms to draw his or her attention to what he or she has already promised. Hence, Mendelssohn concluded, oaths “are not, properly speaking, designed” for the person of conscience. (Nor are they designed for the n’er-do-well who has no respect for pledges–even his own). Makes sense, don’t you think?
If invoking God doesn’t serve as a moral booster, then “so help me God” takes on the quality of prayer. Any new President who, at his discretion, chooses to close his oath with those words is, in effect, turning to God to ask for assistance. He realistically anticipates that his resolve to keep his oath will be tested by the difficult compromises a head of state must consider. He is asking God for help, not for moral reasons, but because he wants divine guidance and comfort when the going gets tough. There’s no doubt, though, that he is, at the same time, telegraphing his theological convictions to the nation. In defense of almost-President Obama, he is limiting himself to the word God which signals an attempt to be inclusive of as many Americans as possible. Since Obama is a Christian, he might very well have preferred to finish with “so help me God, in Jesus’ name I pray.” Yes he could. If he chose. So help me God.
Perhaps, one day, a President will surprise the nation by bucking the customary “so help me God.” Perhaps, after repeating the Constitutional swearing-in oath, she will merely whisper to herself whatever words she wishes to add. Perhaps she will even whisper so softly that recording devices and microphones will fail to register what she said. If so, she will have remained in the religiously neutral world of reason and common humanity, an all-inclusive world. For now–well, if the President prays for God’s help, may God help the President.
References: 1) Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem or on Religious Power and Judaism, trans. Allan Arkush (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 1983), 64; 2) Lisa Miller, “God and the Oath of Office,” Newsweek, Jan. 19, 2009, 13.