Article 2, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution tells us the precise wording of the Presidential Oath of Office:
“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.”
There’s no “So help me God” at the end of it.
Incidentally, there’s also no requirement that you have to put your hand on the Bible while you say it. (In fact in 2008, Obama’s official oath was performed without one entirely.)
According to Michael Newdow‘s ultimately-unsuccessful lawsuit (PDF) against the oath from four years ago, no president said the words “So help me God” until “1881, ninety-two years after George Washington’s initial ceremony” — when “Chester A. Arthur took the oath upon hearing of President James Garfield’s death.” After that it didn’t become a “tradition” as we know it until 1933 (with Franklin Roosevelt).
Even though Newdow lost his lawsuit, there’s no reason atheists can’t publicly oppose the phrase this time around as well — if for no other reason than to remind people that the word “God” isn’t an official part of the oath.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Andrew Seidel explains why Obama has some good reasons to avoid the religious wording:
For secular America, religious rhetoric is empty. Religious justifications for government action are hollow arguments invoking an authority that we reject. Politicians often use religion to pander to their base, but we find such rhetoric exclusionary and distasteful.
You called Nov. 5 “the last day that I will ever campaign.” This term limitation is a gift. You are not beholden to any future constituency. This term is a chance to do something that no president in recent memory has done: reach out to secular Americans. In the past, that might have been politically costly. But this recent election shows that it will be politically costly not to reach out to secular America. We are the future. Use this second term to build a legacy by rejecting the way this country politicizes religion.
Start small. Start by honoring the secular intent of the oath. In its altered, religious form, the oath is a symbol of the disregard this country has shown for its Constitution in the name of God. Our once silent minority will no longer remain silent as politicians trample the document we hold sacred — the Constitution. Honor the oath as you recite it on January 21 and lead us into the new era you promised four years ago.
If you’d like to implore Obama not to use the words, FFRF has a few suggestions as to how you can do it. (There won’t be another lawsuit, though.)
It doesn’t seem like a big deal — and, to be honest, it’s not going to do us any real harm if Obama says it — but every time we let something like this slip, the Religious Right adds it to their giant list of Ways to Trick People Into Thinking We’re a Christian Nation. Let’s not let the occasion pass without at least posing a challenge.