President Obama: When You Take the Oath of Office Again, Don’t Say ‘So Help Me God’

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.)

Chief Justice John Roberts performs a makeshift Oath of Office for President Obama after flubbing the first attempt

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.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine

    Umm… is this seriously something we’re fighting about? About a personal preference whether or not to add the term “so help me God” to the Oath of Office?

    This is the kind of lawsuit material that makes people angsty about atheism. We’re whining about a person’s personal preference. If Obama says “so help me God” it’s his own belief that his god will help him follow through with the words in the Oath prior. Lots of people take the Oath without saying “so help me God” every day.

    We REALLY don’t want to be fighting this.

    • Tracker

       This isn’t a lawsuit though.

      • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine

         Okay, that stated, we’re still starting a campaign against a personal preference

        • primenumbers

          When you’re acting with your “president” hat on, it’s not personal preference any more though. At that point he’s not just a citizen speaking his mind, but a president speaking, and it sends a strong anti-secular message.

          • WoodyTanaka

            But he’s not acting with his president hat on when he takes the oath.  It’s a personal oath that he, as an individual citizens as an individual, is taking.

            • primenumbers

              As soon as he finishes the oath part, he’s president and his first words as president would be “so help me God”, and that sends a very wrong message in a secular democracy.

              • WoodyTanaka

                And simply because he’s president does not mean that he no longer has the same freedom of religion and expression as an individual as he had before taking the oath.  He’s speaking only for himself (unlike the coins and the pledge), so it’s solely his business.

                • primenumbers

                  If he has his president hat on, he certainly does have much less freedom of expression than as an individual speaking.

                  Although I can see how you can see that he’s speaking personally, he’s doing so as an official as part of on official ceremony.

                • WoodyTanaka

                  No, he doesn’t.  He has the rights, as an individual, to speak his mind as an individual. 

                  You’re wrong, he’s not speaking as an official. 

                • primenumbers

                  Not that I agree with you, but it is irrelevant as he’s sending an anti-secular message whether he’s speaking personally or officially.

        • Pedro Lemos

          I´m not american, so I don´t really fully understand all your presidential rituals after the election, so feel free to correct me if I´m wrong, but isn´t a presidencial oath supposed to be anything, but personal?
          He can´t choose his duties as the president of the nation, he has to lead according to the laws and the Constitution, isn´t it? He can´t say, for instance, “I do solemnly swear, bla bla bla, and may the Red Socks win this year tournament.”
          He can´t choose what he is standing up for, because it´s not his personal choice, it´s his role as president. It´s not Mr. Obama doing the oath, it´s President Obama.
          And, of course, this choice of words is more of a political choice than a personal choice. So, no matter what is said, if he thinks it´s gonna be better for his mandate, he will do it anyway…

          • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

            I think it would be awesome if he ended the oath of office with an endorsement for his favorite team. Especially because coming from Chicago, it would probably be the Cubs, wouldn’t it? That makes it funnier. 

            • WoodyTanaka

              He’s a well known White Sox fan.

    • C Peterson

      I absolutely agree, this isn’t something that atheists should be fighting. It isn’t an atheist issue. Nobody should say they are opposed to the corrupted oath because they are atheists. That is damaging.

      But anybody who feels strongly about supporting the secular nature of our country should be speaking up on this issue, should be encouraging the President to take the oath as it is written, and without a Bible. That’s a solid secularist view. Secularists may be atheists, but also Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and people of all manner of religious and philosophical viewpoints.

    • kaydenpat

       I agree that this is really nothing big.  Unfortunately, it would rile up the Rightwingers if he left it out and be another Fox News talking point.

    • Kris

      We are not picking at “personal preference” here. He is our PRESIDENT, meaning he represents ALL OF US. He is not saying his wedding vows here, which would be personal, he is making his Oath of Office as President of the United States. 

      This is anything but personal.  We DO need to be fighting this. He is not taking this oath “personal”. He is making this oath to *our* country and this means this oath NEEDS to be secular. 

      My adding “so help me God” at the end, he is making this oath to theists, not to the secular world… which is what government *should* be.  Secular. Always. 

      We already have God on our money, in our Pledge of Allegiance etc etc and it is because of these things that people insist we are a “Christian Nation”.   Saying this oath to the American people and adding god to it only gives them MORE reason to say “See, look, even the Presidents’ Oath of Office says ‘so help me God’ in it!”

      The president represents a secular government and a secular country. Therefore, all things IN government, oaths, court proceedings etc etc should all BE secular. This leaves out any room for favoritism or discrimination. 

      • WoodyTanaka

        “We are not picking at ‘personal preference’ here. He is our PRESIDENT, meaning he represents ALL OF US”

        And he is speaking for no one but himself.  Simply because he’s President does not mean that he forfeit his right to believe and say what he wants. 

  • machintelligence

    I think there may be strong support in the Democratic party for this. Look at what happened at the National convention when the delegates were asked to amend the party platform to (among other things) put the word God into it. It needed a 2/3 majority but failed to get a simple majority. They ruled that it had passed, since it was a voice vote, but anyone who was listening realized that it had not.

    • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

      That’s because Antonio Villaraigosa is an idiot.

      • Gus Snarp

        I don’t think Villaraigosa was entirely acting of his own volition. Apparently certain people had decided that not having God in the platform was not to be tolerated. Perhaps including the person who’ll be taking the oath of office in January.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Tiffany/100001926356049 David Tiffany

    Since there is a God, secularism is not the future.  http://atheistlegitimacy.blogspot.com/

    • Tyrrlin Flamestrike

      What proof can you offer us that there is a god?  And no, you cannot just say, “the Bible says there is and it’s the word of god” as that is circular reasoning.  Offer up demonstratable, repeatable, measurable, scientific proof, please.

      • Glasofruix

        I’m guessing he’ll go with “But nature is beautiful, therefore skyfairy exists” proof, as usual. It’s not the first time he throws his idiotic blog around here, and everyfucking time he uses the same (lack of) logic…

        • Kris

          People say “the world around you is proof! Your existence is proof!”

          Of what, I say?

          Our world is proof that the world exists. 

          Our existence is proof that we exist. 

          Evidence of God would prove that God exists, however, there isn’t any. 

          • Ezio Auditore

            How would you explain miracles then? And you can’t say it’s just a coincidence or just lucky.

    • Michael

      Since there are multiple gods, neither is Christianity.

    • primenumbers

      Rather an abysmally shallow apologetic there David. Try harder next time…

    • C Peterson

      Since there are so many foolish people who believe such unsupportable nonsense, societal sanity is not in our future.

      • Blacksheep

        Societal sanity is certainly not measured by its degree of faith, history has certainly taught us that! I would not trade living in a society built upon the judea Christian faith for one that was not, and I suspect that upon analysis you would not either.

        • uncle k

          I would. Lived in Japan many years. It’s a very nice society, thank you very much, with a 4% Christianity rate. 

        • C Peterson

          Social sanity is closely measured by faith, with the countries having the least religiosity also providing the highest standards of living, strongest economies, and highest happiness indexes.

          We certainly do not live in a society build substantially on “judea Christian faith” [sic]. Little of our law or formal societal structure comes from such a thing, although much of the negative and damaging informal structure stems from a Judeo-Christian heritage.

          Had I good reason to leave this country, I would not concern myself with the religious heritage of a secular Islamic state like Turkey, a Hindu state like India, the Shinto culture of Japan, or the various Buddhist components of some Asian societies. Indeed, some of these would be preferable to the unpleasantness of living in a country with a Judeo-Christian cultural heritage.

    • Glasofruix

       You again? Haven’t we already dismantled every “argument” presented in the form of bible verses on your shitty blog?

      • Kris

        Another fingers in ears moment “Lalalala, I cant hear you!”

        So typical of people. I wonder, does it make them feel better to come do drive-by comments on an atheist blog, then turn around and say “They attack us! Just leave us alone!”

    • Drakk

       You gonna open up comments on your blog, or are you too afraid to be called out on your bullshit?

  • Santiago

    It won’t happen. It would be nice though…

  • mrschili

    Done.  I think it IS worth fighting about.  As a non-theist, I am conscious of how prevalent references to God and religion are in our civic lives.  I’d like to see much less of it.

  • Erp

    Probably not worth fighting over but the stance should be the administrator of the oath (usually the chief justice) should not add any words (so help me god) though the person taking the oath can do so if he or she feels it adds weight to the formal words.  

    • Sven2547

      I was about to say the same thing.  I frankly don’t care what the oath-taker feels like saying at the end, but the oath-giver has no business pushing a religious agenda.

    • freemage

       This is my feeling on the matter, as well.  If an individual office-taker is compelled as a matter of his faith to affirm his oath with a reference to the invisible sky-daddy of his choice, that’s fine.  However, it has no place as being part of the oath as it is delivered to him in the first place.

    • Explicit Atheist

      Yes, I also agree, the Chief Justice misrepresenting the oath for the last 90 years is a bigger problem than the president elect ad libing the same phrase on his own initiative. The FFRF is making a mistake by placing all of their focus on the latter and no attention at all to the former. I wrote to FFRF lawyer Seidel to complain about this. I am glad to see a number of smart people here recognizing this mistake.

  • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

    I swear… do some of you sit on your couches, reading blogs like this, going, “Nah, not worth my time. Nope… nah… nope…”? I get that you don’t think it’s worth YOUR time fighting over. But some of us do. Don’t pretend to speak for the rest of us when you say it isn’t worth “our” time.

  • Philbert

    I don’t think it’s worth fighting about, but making people aware of what the Constitution actually says is always worthwhile.

    • WoodyTanaka

      Which is why I don’t have a problem with it.  If a Christian uses, as proof of a “Christian nation”, the “so help me god,” it is a good lesson to say, “go check the Constitution.  If it really is a Christian nation, it’ll include it in the Constitution, itself. 

    • Explicit Atheist

      Then you do have problem with it, because the only possible purpose for the oath administrator adding a particular religious phrase every inaugural is to mislead the public into thinking that that religious phrase is part of the oath. I guarantee you that if the Chief Justice didn’t add this phrase that more than a few people would express shock that the oath was rendered in a way that would make it possible for a non-theist to become president. Anyone who sincerely wants people to know the oath doesn’t contain that phrase will either also want the oath administrator to stop misrepresenting the oath as containing that phrase or will be inconsistent. You are being inconsistent.

  • http://www.darthcontinent.com/ Darth Continent

    Big deal, he should do it according to his own convictions. If appending “so help me God” is as a personal affirmation to his job, that’s fine with me. So long as that religion doesn’t unduly influence public policy, how he takes the oath doesn’t matter to me.

    • C Peterson

      And how do you feel about the administrator of the oath actually prompting the President for “so help me God”, as has been done lately?

      • 3lemenope

        I think this is exactly where it becomes problematic. It is not like the Pledge, where the God interpolation was officially added. Presidents who happen to believe in God and understand the oath-taking enterprise as being in sight of an entity they think guarantees it beyond the guarantors of the oath’s object itself is not a big deal; appending something unofficial like “…so help me God” is a personal affirmation in addition to the official one required by the text of the oath.

        But when the oath administrator generates an unavoidable expectation that it be said by prompting it (thus drawing undue attention to its absence if it is omitted, no matter how traditional it may be), an actual serious line has been crossed. To my mind, that’s the part that’s not cool.

      • WoodyTanaka

        Do you really think that Roberts didn’t get the okay by Obama ahead of time to add it??  The Court and its members are aware of the constitutional implications of this issue.  (As a small example, when a lawyer joins the Supreme Court bar, he or she has the option of having “in the year of our lord” added or omitted.)

        • C Peterson

          Who knows? Roberts couldn’t even articulate the oath… it doesn’t seem like there was any preparation at all. Given that he clearly dislikes Obama tremendously, I have no reason to think there was any advance communication between the two.

          In any case, it doesn’t matter. The President might choose to add his own comments at the end of the oath, but it is entirely inappropriate for those to be prompted by the administrator of that oath, because the distinction between the required oath and optional comments becomes blurred.

          • WoodyTanaka

            Then you’re beliefs are simply foolish.  If you don’t think there is coordination between every person who has a role in such an event, you are concocting fairies  in your head and are not worthy of being taken seriously.

            • Mgpublic

              There is absolutely nothing in the historical record to support your pulled out of nowhere insistence that over the last 90 years all of presidents, on their own initiative, went to the Chief Justice and requested that the oath be modified to include this monotheistic codicil. But even if any did, the proper response to such a request would be no, because it is very difficult to justify the oath administrator agreeing to add a codicil when the president elect can add the codicil without the assistance of the judge. You are the one being foolish here.

  • Joan

    I’d just like him to get through it without stumbling over it this time. :-)

    • C Peterson

      Actually, he did a fine job last time. Roberts didn’t know the oath, and led him through the wrong words. Obama was forced to stop to give Roberts the chance to correct his error… which he still couldn’t manage.

      Particularly egregious in this case, I think, was that Roberts prompted Obama with “So help you God” at the end- something even more inappropriate than Obama choosing to add it as a personal comment.

      • Joan

        Yes, you are correct.  I should have said, “I hope *they* get through it without stumbling this time.”  I just remember some silliness on Fox news about him not being official because of stumbling over the oath, which is ridiculous, because he officially became President at noon on Jan 20, 2009, regardless of when and how the oath was given.

        • Explicit Atheist

          Taking the oath as written is a legal pre-requisite to becoming president. Maybe oaths in general are ridiculous, but that is what an oath is all about, and all federal employees must take an oath.

      • Mgpublic

        The Chief Justice has added that same phrase during EVERY inaugural for the past 90 years! You are making it sounded like this happened for the first time last time.

  • Harley17-57

    Pick your battles this one is not worth fighting. I

  • http://www.facebook.com/chad.boswell.104 Chad Boswell

    Obama has already started it, here are quotes from his victory speech after the election.

    “And together with your help and God’s grace we will continue our
    journey forward and remind the world just why it is that we live in the
    greatest nation on Earth.”

    -This quote is like a slap in the face. He makes it sound that without “God’s grace” we can’t move forward and accomplish these goals. That we need “God’s” help to do this.

    “Thank you, America. God bless you. God bless these United States.”

    -This was expected but really, how non secular can you get. It should have ended at Thank you, America or Long Live the United States. 

    I don’t understand how a political figure, especially The President can mention “God” and it not be endorsing religion. It makes me wonder if anyone in office believes in the Constitution anymore.
     

  • tnskeptic

    Once the words as stated in the constitution are said the oath is over.  Anything he adds after that is a personal statement, whether it is so help me God or Yabba Dabba Doo, makes no difference.  I don’t see this as a thing to fight over.

    • 3lemenope

      The problem, as has been noted up-thread, is that it has become expected enough that the administrator of the oath prompts for it despite it not being a part of the official oath, thus making its absence, if the oath-taker were to wish to omit it, notable. That’s the part that makes it problematic.

      • tnskeptic

        I don’t think the administrator decides how it will end.  The oath taker is the one that would make that decision if he/she wanted to end it without any declarations at the end.  The president can choose the administrator so I am sure they would be in agreement as how it will end.    

        • 3lemenope

          The problem is one of demarcation. The relevant part is not whether the oath giver and oath taker agree on what should be said; the relevant part is whether it is sufficiently clear to an observer where the oath part ends and the personal comment part begins. Continuing the call/response pattern to include what is not in the oath implies that it is intended to be understood as part of the oath.

          • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine

            Have you seen the reaffirmation ceremony of Justin Griffith? He had a chaplain do it for him, and the call/response ended before the “so help me God” portion, and it was without religious statements. That’s likely what it’ll be like. The president will choose his oath giver, and it will likely be decided ahead of time whether religious statements will be added.

            • Explicit Atheist

              No, your analogy doesn’t work. Justin had a religious phrase removed because he is not religious and would not recite such a phrase. There is no such justification for an oath administrator adding the same religious phrase to the end of the oath because the oath taker can do that on their own without any assistance from the oath administrator.

    • Gus Snarp

      Fighting? Who’s fighting? Is having an expressing an opinion to your elected leaders always fighting? What things should we not have/express our opinion on? Could you give us a list of when it’s acceptable to express our opinion and when it’s a waste of time?

  • Gus Snarp

    That would be beautiful, but somehow I don’t see it happening. Many Presidents have used books other than the Bible, but I like the picture of Obama with no book at all. That would make a nice tradition. Even when I was a Christian, I thought the notion of swearing on the Bible was at once meaningless and disrespectful. I no longer find it disrespectful, but it’s still meaningless. A person’s word is their own to keep and only they are responsible for it. Standing alone and making a promise only on your own honor means so much more than swearing on some holy book.

    Now as for the administrator of the oath, I understand that it’s traditionally the Chief Justice, but couldn’t it be someone else?  A different justice of the Supreme Court, maybe? Like maybe a Latina Woman instead of yet another white man? Just a thought.

  • veganheathen

    Thanks for bringing this up, Hemant. I cringe whenever I hear the President say “God bless America”.  Your blog prompted me to send a letter to the White House:

    Dear President Obama,

    Congratulations on your re-election. This is wonderful news for America!

    I write to you today to ask that you refrain from making any reference to God when you take your Oath of Office or in any subsequent address to the country.

    Such references are offensive to me as an atheist and violate the spirit of the first Amendment.

    It is time that we liberate this nation from the primitive superstitions which divide us and impede our progress. You have a great opportunity in your second term to send the country and the world a message that this is a secular nation which has outgrown its need to seek the blessings of fictional characters.

    Thank you for all you have done for this country. I wish you even greater success in your second term.

  • Blacksheep

    Whether or not to add the words “so help me God” is a personal preference and should be respected as a freedom like any other. he said he was a believer when he ran, and he was elected by a majority who would not have elected him if they thought his beliefs made him unfit to run our country. 

  • SeekerLancer

    He’s going to say it, I mean he doesn’t have to because he doesn’t need to get re-elected but if you think he cares what we have to say you’re mistaken.

    • Explicit Atheist

      It’s not that “he cares what we have to say”, obviously he doesn’t. It is that they (president, White House, Democratic Party) care about moving the country in a positive direction. Since getting the Chief Justice to stop appending a religious codicil while administering the oath would move the country as a whole in a positive direction, this is something they have good reason to consider doing, and that we have good reason to pursue until it happens.

  • Keulan

    If Obama doesn’t say it, you can be sure that some Christians will freak out about that, just like they did back in 2009 when Obama mentioned nonbelievers in his inaugural address.

  • Gus Snarp

    So while we’re all writing letters about this, I created a petition on Whitehouse.gov, which you can easily go and sign. I realize those petitions don’t seem to have much effect, but if it reaches enough signatures it will at least be read by someone, and it will have all those signatures attached. I’m under no illusions that we’ll hear a secular oath in January, but the more we can get this message heard with the maximum number of names attached, the more likely that at some point in the future we’ll be listened to, so consider signing and sharing the petition:  https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/recite-oath-office-written-constitution-without-addition-words-so-help-me-god/gFDGssdJ

  • Explicit Atheist

    In the Christian Post it says: Atheist Hemant Mehta doesn’t believe it’s a big deal or that any real harm would be done if Obama does recite “so help me God.” But, he argues, “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.”

    Read more at http://www.christianpost.com/news/atheists-ask-obama-to-ditch-so-help-me-god-bible-in-presidential-oath-84954

    Hemant, if this is only about “the Religious Right”, and not a big deal, then why do secularist organizations like Americans United for … Not complain about the Chief Justice always prompting the president elect to include a religious codicil to his oath of office? It seems obvious to me that 1) our liberal secular allies are not allies on this issue because some of them share similar anti- atheist attitudes that you are attributing only to the Religious Right and 2) there is a lot of opposition to the notion that our government grants complete (as opposed to partial) civic equality to atheists. I don’t think this context matches your quoted characterization of it.


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