Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and let your ‘no’ be ‘no’

Hemant Mehta says to President Obama: “When you take the oath of office, don’t say, ‘So help me God.’

Mehta rightly points out that this phrase is not part of the oath — which pledges to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” a thoroughly secular document. And he notes that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln and every other president up until Chester A. Arthur in 1881 managed to be sworn in without the phrase.

Mehta quotes from Andrew Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, expressing that group’s reasons for avoiding this religious phrase:

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.

I’d urge Seidel to … well, not “find such rhetoric exclusionary and distasteful.” It would be both of those things if that sectarian phrase were mandatory — if it were imposed on every official regardless of their personal beliefs. But it’s not mandatory.

Contrast the presidential oath with the Oath of Allegiance for new citizens in the United States. That oath includes the mandatory phrase “so help me God.” How requiring that phrase of every new citizen is supposedly reconcilable with the First Amendment is a mystery to me. That, I think, is exclusionary and distasteful.

I also don’t understand why the oath for new citizens needs to be more than three times longer than the oath taken by the president. I’d pare the thing down to its two essential clauses: “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America [and] I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” Period. That would correct the current oath’s violation of the Establishment Clause while also making the whole thing less creepy in general.

From left: Nenita Bouchard, from Philippines, Gustavo Calix Luque, from Honduras, Michael Cumming, from Canada, Emmanual Dima, from Cameroon, and Mujo Durakovic, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, take the Oath of Allegiance for new United States citizens in June in Syracuse, N.Y. That oath, by law, includes the phrase “so help me God.” It shouldn’t. (Photo by Dick Blume of The (Syracuse) Post Standard.)

With regard to the swearing-in of the president, though, the essential point here is that, at this time, Andrew Seidel is not the person being sworn in. Barack Obama is. And Obama believes in God.

If Obama voluntarily chooses to add the phrase “So help me God,” then Obama is the one making the affirmation. It doesn’t matter whether anyone else believes in God, and it doesn’t matter whether or not that belief is correct for whatever value of “correct” Seidel or Franklin Graham or anyone else cares to argue. If uttering the phrase “So help me God,” emphasizes the gravity and seriousness of Obama’s oath — for him, personally, and thus for all witnessing him — then it’s just kind of weird to take offense at that.

Seidel’s objection that Obama’s use of this phrase would be “exclusionary and distasteful” parallels the protests from Christianists after Rep. Keith Ellison reaffirmed his oath of office with his hand on a copy of the Koran once owned by Thomas Jefferson. I expect to hear the same whining in January when Tulsi Gabbard is sworn in as a member of the U.S. House from Hawaii. Gabbard is Hindu and has said she plans to take her oath on the Bhagavad Gita.

I’ve never understood the objection to that. I want Ellison and Gabbard to take their duty as public servants seriously, so I want them to take their oath of office as seriously as possible. The Koran is sacred to Ellison, so it is, for him, an appropriate expression of that seriousness. One does not have to share Ellison’s Muslim faith to appreciate that. The Gita, likewise, is sacred to Gabbard and is thus an appropriate expression of her seriousness. One does not have to share Gabbard’s Hindu faith to appreciate that.

Barack Obama is a Christian for whom the invocation of God is sacred. And so the phrase, “So help me God” may be, for him, an expression of the seriousness with which all people — Christian, atheist, Muslim or Hindu — ought to want to see him take that oath.

All of these public servants are being sworn into offices which are, and must be, thoroughly secular. That means, among other things, that there can be no religious test for any such office. That, in turn, means that no public servant can be compelled or required to take an oath on the Christian Bible, or on the Islamic Koran, or on any other sacred text. But it also must mean that no public servant can be prohibited from affirming that which they hold sacred.

Secular government affirms religious pluralism, as only secular government can.

As for me, personally, I’m a Baptist. That doesn’t mean I would want to be sworn in on a Bible that was once owned by Roger Williams, but rather that I’m leery of swearing any oath at all. I think it’s inappropriate to signify the sincerity of any such oath by placing my hand on a book that contains these words:

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No;” anything more than this comes from the evil one.

The Constitution happily accommodates those of us who hail from oath-averse traditions, providing allowance for us in the text of the presidential oath: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office  …”

But then, being a Baptist, I don’t think I have the right to insist that everyone else believe the same thing I do. So when Rep. Ellison affirms the solemnity of his oath by placing his hand on the Koran, or when soon-to-be Rep. Gabbard affirms the solemnity of her oath by placing her hand on the Gita, or if President Obama should affirm the solemnity of his oath by adding, “so help me God,” I think it best to respect those choices and thereby to respect them as people, and to appreciate that what matters on such occasions is the seriousness and sincerity of the official and not the sectarian particulars used to signify it.

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  • Carstonio

    I wasn’t accusing you of belittling minorities, but of erring in treating the claims of the religious right at face value. They insist that only strident anti-theists would be outraged or offended by “in God we trust,” wrongly framing the issue as religion versus anti-religion.

  •  Every time I hear someone invoke “But tradition!” as a defence, I flash to an image of Topol shaking his fists heavenward shouting “TRADITION!”

  •  I dunno. If my memory serves me correctly, back in 2009, there *were* reports that Obama had omitted the “so help me god” part. I’m moderately sure if you asked Romney voters now if he had or not, quite a lot of them would say that no, President Obama did not say “So help me God” when he took the oath of office in 2009.

    I kinda doubt that anyone who would have switched sides over it was going to vote for Obama in the first place.

  • Seiber

     I also bet that (like me) Obama supporters knew that wasn’t true at all. The anti-Obama voters were already eager to believe anything bad about him, even things that if true would make nobody vote for him. They believed he wasn’t eligible to be president at all.

  • flat

    As a christian I agree with what Jesus said about making vows and that the best response usually is a simple yes or no, and after you promised something you keep it.

    I think that perhaps I am a bit of a coward in some ways but I  prefer to say deo volente (If the Lord will).
    That takes a bit of the responsibility away when I am doing something I have promised to do, but at the same time gives me a reason to at least try my best if I want to do something and I am not entirely sure if is a good idea.

    So that’s my opinion.

  • Lliira

    Why is the duty on the new citizens to “notify” somebody?

    Exactly. What if it were assumed that you’re Christian, and you had to swear by
    Jesus Christ, and had to inform someone and go through these hoops to
    not go through them? To some bureaucrat who is probably Christian? Most bureaucrats are quite good at their jobs and perform them without fear or favor, but some of them would probably make things harder for you to one degree or another. Even getting a side-eye from a bureaucrat can be intimidating, even when you’re just there to renew your vehicle registration. How much more intimidating is it when that bureaucrat has control over your immigration status, i.e., your entire life?

    It’s no different for someone who does not believe in “God” as such. Personally, I’d probably just shrug and take the full oath rather than go through the hoops. We all have to make these choices every day — and that’s not really okay. It’s especially not okay when it’s such an important matter and such an important oath.

  • Lliira

    Civil rights have nothing to do with the majority.

    I can tell you’ve been arguing a lot with conservatives. Some of it seems to have rubbed off on you. I think you are well-meaning, but I also think you’re soaking in privilege and could stand to get your head above water more often.

  • Lliira

    Who started this self righteous trend?

    A bunch of old, rich men way back a couple hundred years after Jesus was officially murdered by a bunch of old, rich men. We’ve gotten better: the old, rich men aren’t allowed to burn us to death for not believing what they say we’re supposed to believe this month.

  • AnonymousSam

    I just had a fabulous mental picture of someone swearing by the Lord Ruler with his or her hand on a metal plate etched with incomprehensible characters.

    I’d vote for ’em.

  • CoolHandLNC

    We were talking about defaults, not rights. I think there is a distinction, and that we need to pick our battles. You probably don’t agree. Lets leave it at that.

    I can tell you’ve been arguing a lot with conservatives. Some of it seems to have rubbed off on you. I think you are well-meaning, but I also think you’re soaking in privilege and could stand to get your head above water more often.

    That is presumptuous. You don’t know anything about me. You are assuming I am defending my own privilege, a privilege you assume that I have. I have heard exactly the same presumption from conservatives. I guess this is reassuring, as I believe myself to be a moderate. (Moderates are not a privileged class these days.) The conservatives assume I must be arguing to obtain some sort of privilege or benefit as a member of a minority. In some ways you and they are both wrong and both right. It isn’t that simple. I could explain to you why you are wrong, but I do not need to justify myself to you.

  • CoolHandLNC

    Swearing on someone else’s holy book strikes me as being a lot like testifying on someone else’s balls.

    Now that’s funny! I just had an image of the President and the Chief Justice … now there would be tradition! Talk about a serious oath! But then that wouldn’t work quite the same when we have a female Chief Justice. Still, traditions must be adapted…

  • Or Ati and Laras. :P

  • AnonymousSam

    Swearing by Adonalsium would probably be a little more appropriate, come to that. Considering the origin-basis of the word Adonalsium–Adonai–you might even get away with it!

  • Worthless Beast


    Regarding the Pledge of Alliegence… how many of you when you were little kids saying it in school even realized what you were saying?

    I thought I giving loyalty to Halloween-witches in baseball stands.  “For witches-stands…” 

    I have no problem with Obama adding a swear to God if he wants to… in fact, for him, it may be a political necessity (I.E. code for “I can swear just like you do. I am not the Antichrist, I’m just your president, RELAX.” ) And if it offends a few atheists, well… the atheists aren’t being a pain in his butt right now and are not in need of being assured by public displays of “being the same” like that.

  • AnonymousSam

    What irritates me is that, for Obama, having the option to invoke God during his swearing in is roughly equivalent to the totally-optional-not-at-all-important option of adding “And I promise I will not sacrifice thousands of children on a black altar in the name of Satan.”

    If he doesn’t say it, people will claim the omission is indicative of evil intent.
    If he says it, they’ll just pretend he didn’t.
    If he says it and you play videos of him saying it, they’ll just say he didn’t mean it.

    When an oath means absolutely nothing, I question the point of having it. To me, an oath including God and an oath without it are of equal value because I know neither would give a bad president even a moment’s pause before being broken. Considering how many of the evil prats calling themselves Christians are quite happy to be Liars for Jesus, evidently even an oath in God’s name is worth less than the HTML it’s printed on.

  • Carstonio

    Who it might offend is not the point. The phrase excludes all non-monotheists, not just atheists, whether these groups are offended or not. The exclusion is not a constitutional problem in the inaugural oath as long as “so help me” is voluntary, but it is when the name “God” is in the Pledge through an act of Congress.

  • Tricksterson

    Just for gits and shiggles I’d like to mention that if I was to swear an oath it would be to “Whoever” since I believe in all gods and wouldn’t want to offend any of them.

    Or maybe I’s swear by “Trickster, Father of Lies”.  ;D

  • Regarding the Pledge of Alliegence… how many of you when you were little kids saying it in school even realized what you were saying?

    I stopped saying the “under God” part when I was about 10.  I would just say, “one nation…indivisible, with liberty and justice…”

    Like it used to be.

  • The_L1985

     That doesn’t work so well on change.

  • Worthless Beast

    Sigh… this place is so damned seirous all the time.

    I’m not *defending* the Pledge. In fact,I think it’s creepy.  My point was that having children do a loyalty-oath, like what I grew up doing, is kind of pointless since young children probably don’t know what they’re pledging to, anyway.  Many don’t even understand the words.   I knew lots of people who thought they were swearing loyal to Richard Stanz when they were in kindergarten.  I thought I was talking about witches. 

  • Carstonio

    No disagreement on the pointlessness of the exercise for children. There’s also a strong argument that having a national pledge at all is quasi-totalitarian. None of that changes the principle that such a pledge must be secular.

  • I moved from Canada to the U.S. when I was eleven. At some point I realized that I didn’t actually mean a word of the Pledge of Allegiance — the US was just the country I was living in; I wasn’t even a legal permanent resident, and saw no reason why I should be loyal to it over any other country. At which point I started standing silently, instead of reciting. 

  • Worthless Beast

    Yes, it should be.  I was just asking other people if they were as dumb as I was as a little kid and didn’t even understand the words.  Pledging loyalty to Halloween was hunky-dory to me! 

    I think things would be a lot easier in these government functions of people were just sworn in on the Bill of Rights or one of our other “sacred-secular” documents, that is, the ones they’re actually supposed to uphold.  Believe it or not, some of these “swearing on the Bible” and “Swearing before God” oaths actually screw up monothestic religious people, too – as anyone who’s known Jehova’s Witnesses can tell you. 

    If its optional-for-adults and makes someone feel better (or for someone is politically advantageous), I don’t really see a point in getting angry over them doing it, though.  People will do what’s important to them and/or what they think will grease the wheels.  If I were being sworn into office, I proably wouldn’t even think about it until someone told me *not* to, in which case, I might swear by God, Allah, Shiva, Thor, Hylia…. which one or group I believed in aside, just to be obnoxious.

  • Tricksterson

    I think the Moral majority were the first to make it explicit.  Before it was just assumed that  everyone was Christian or Jewish (and who would elect one of them to anything important?)

  • P J Evans

     And I sort of remember when ‘under God’ became part of it – everyone stumbled there for a long time. I remember one of my teachers, later, trying to get us to not pause before it, because there’s no comma there.

  • Tricksterson

    I’m wondering what Maisie Hirono, the new Buddhist Senator is planning on swearing on or by and why people seem to be ignoring her?

    Personally I can’t wait until we get a President who swears by the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

  • Sven

    The problem with the Oath being required, in this form, is not just one of defaults: I could live with it if the “so help me God” were in there by default, but one could just decide to omit it (or modify it to correspond with ones beliefs). But one cannot. One has to ask permission. Personally, I’d prefer the default version to be religion-neutral (with no permission required if you want to solemnize it by adding your religious phrase of choice), but the issue here is not only that it is not, but that you have to ask permission to make it religion-neutral.

    Something that is even more bothersome is the stuff about bearing arms. You CAN request to be allowed to omit that, but only provided that “you are unable or unwilling to promise to bear arms or perform noncombatant service because of religious training and belief”—right, because no-one could be a pacifist without his religion telling him so (or maybe they can be, they just cannot be serious about it). Because atheists do not and cannot have moral principles?

    And, in contradistinction to the “so help me God” part: “USCIS may require you to provide documentation from your religious organization explaining its beliefs and stating that you are a member in good standing.”

    If that is not a clear infringement of the rights of non-believers, I don’t know what is.

  • My father, who struggled a lot in elementary school (I suspect he may have had a mild learning disability since my sister also has one) gets upset when people insist to him that “One nation under God” were the founders’ own words*, because he remembers having struggled to learn the words, having only just managed to get them memorized when they changed them on him forcing him to try to learn them all over again.

    (* Never mind for now that the original godless words were written in the late 19th century by a baptist minister for the Boy Scouts.)

  • Do Buddhists have a sacred book that they traditionally use for oaths? 

    For Congresspersons, the “swearing” ceremony that we think of isn’t even their actual swearing ceremony. The reality is a little bit more boring. They take their official Congressional oaths en masse, at the start of each Congress. No holy books are involved. 

    Basically, you get frogmarched into the Senate chamber in large groups. Biden tells you to raise your right hand, and recites the oath for you to swear or affirm. The part with the holy book/text comes is an optional event conducted by party leaders on their own; theoretically a Representative or Senator could skip it altogether since it has no legal meaning — it’s just for fun.

  • Keulan

    Saying “so help me God” at the end of the Oath of Office may technically be optional, but you can bet that if Obama chose not to say it quite a few Christians in this country would go apeshit. Back in January 2009, there was this big stink (helped along by Fox “News” of course) over the fact that Obama mentioned nonbelievers in his inaugural address. So while saying “so help me God” when taking the Oath of Office is in theory optional, in practice it really isn’t.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I don’t swear by anything and overt displays of religiosity by American politicians weirds me out. With that in mind: would everyone here be cool with a politician “swearing to God” in a country where religiosity is not the norm?

  • Wingedwyrm

    Depending on the context.  If that was their way of saying “you see, this time I’m telling the truth”, I wouldn’t trust it then either.  If that was a private (though openly viewed)  addition that held no rewards, then I would be alright with it.

  • Tricksterson

    I don’t know what if anything Buddhists swear by.  I suspect it depends on the branch of Buddhism or maybe even the individual Buddhist.

  • Sigh… this place is so damned seirous all the time.

    Sigh… people are such downers for caring about things they care about and talking about them as if they mattered. It’s almost like those people think they matter, as people. The world would be so much better if people stopped caring about the things they care about, and stopped trying to get other people to treat stuff seriously. Or at least stopped doing it so loudly, where they can be seen, jeez, totally harshes the apathetic I’m-Too-Cool-To-Care buzz, ya know?

  • Alicia

     Incidentally, am I the only one who really hates when people feel the need to type our their body language when posting on the Internet? (As in “sigh” or “yawn”). It’s almost as stupid-looking as typing “meh” or “um”.

  • Rowen

    My favorite has been Eek the Cat’s “I pledge my cheeses to the hag, and her wild states of hysteria.”

  • Dan Audy

    You aren’t the only one but personally I find that it helps compensate for the lack of tone and body language in communication on the internet.  ‘Sigh’ communicates a huge amount of information without actually having to tediously type it out or rely on people catching the sarcasm or exhaustion or whatever.

  • CeeQ

    You’re right. Moral Majority just gave self righteousness steroids. 

  • Context like that is important. It can be easy to misjudge tone on the Web.