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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  • GuestPoster

    I tend to agree.  I don’t like god being in the pledge (but then, I think the pledge of allegiance is a horrible thing in general.  Country should earn a kid’s respect and allegiance, not indoctrinate it).  And I don’t like god being on money (why do I have to carry YOUR religion around in my pocket if I plan to use vending machines today?)  But where NOT required, I have no problems with people adding a small affirmation of private faith in to their otherwise secular duties.  

    I suppose it’s the difference between, say, those 10 commandment statues in front of a courthouse, and someone simply crossing themselves as they enter the courthouse.  One is something everyone is confronted with, whether they agree or not, and seems to mark a position taken by the authority.  The other is a personal choice which affects noone else at all, and should be as open to public servants as to the public themselves.

  • EllieMurasaki

     And I don’t like god being on money (why do I have to carry YOUR
    religion around in my pocket if I plan to use vending machines today?)

    This is what Sharpies are for. Just blot out the offending line.

  • Lori

    Anyone planning to do that needs to do so with the full understanding that it’s not just a random protest, it’s an act of civil disobedience that could theoretically have legal consequences. I’m not sure how one would get caught, but it is considered a violation of federal law.

  • EllieMurasaki

    “Whoever mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, or Federal Reserve bank, or the Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence
    of debt unfit to be reissued, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.”

    Note the bit about ‘with intent to render such [money] unfit to be reissued’. It is not unfit to be reissued. It simply no longer carries the assurance that the bearer trusts in a deity that the bearer does not necessarily believe in.

  • Lori

    AFAIK the current position of law enforcement (specifically the Secret Service, which is the relevant agency) is still that any writing on money, for any reason, is a violation of the law. Bills with significant marking are taken out of circulation, which essentially means that they’re deemed not fit to be reissued.

    Saying that it’s not in fact unfit to be reissued would be the obvious defense, but someone planning to mark on their money needs to do so with the knowledge that said defense may actually be requited and is not automatically assumed. However logical it may be, the law doesn’t have a lot of sympathy with people making permanent markings on bills which are only temporarily in their possession.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    Of course, we could always start without a reference to God on our money, and believers could write it in with Sharpies if they like…

  • Lori

    We should absolutely not have God on our money. The fact that we do should be as offensive to religious people as it is to me.

    If we did have godless money and someone wrote “In God I trust” or some such on it, that would be a violation of federal law.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    Just flipping around Ellie’s argument to show how the other half (or, in this case, about 10%) lives…  ;)

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    So Ellie isn’t an atheist anymore?  That’s news to me.  When did you find this out?

  • EllieMurasaki

    News to me, too.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    I wasn’t commenting on Ellie’s religion one way or another–just flipping the Sharpie argument.

    Which appears to have failed in at least two ways, so apologies.

  • Carstonio

    The money and the Pledge should not include the names of any religion’s gods. Despite the broad usage of the name “God,” many religions don’t use it, so the name is no less sectarian than “Jesus” or “Muhammed.”

  • The_L1985

     That doesn’t work so well on change.

  • Morilore

    I agree that in an ideal, aspirational America where we actually do have a completely secular government and a thoroughly pluralistic society, no one should care what sectarian flourishes people add to official oaths.  However, we live in a Christian-hegemonic society.  Fred didn’t address Hermant’s actual reasons for being troubled by those little words:

    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.

    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.

    When Christians bug Hindus and Buddhists about swearing on their respective holy books, it’s an aggressive claim of religious hegemony – “only this particular religious opinion is legitimate!”  When atheists bug Christians about the same thing, it’s to remind people that atheists and other religious minorities exist.  They aren’t the same thing and treating them as though they are is a symptom of privilege blindness.

  • histrogeek

     I tend to agree. There is no reason why the presidential oath and especially the citizen oath need to include any public declaration of “So help me God,” or “I will with God’s help” (the formula from my tradition that I prefer). It encourages religion as a tribal identifier and violates Jesus’ command against practicing piety for human approval.
    Take it out of the official ceremony. There are ways that a president can pray or call on divine approval through personal statements, even speeches, but not through the ceremony itself.

  • hidden_urchin

    …it’s to remind people that atheists and other religious minorities exist.

    Thank you so much.  I’ve been having a really rough time because a friend of mine just told me that a prayer to the Abrahamic God in the House of Representatives was not actually marginalizing for religious minorities because the prayer did not treat anyone as insignificant.

    Except, you know, religious minorities who are automatically excluded by a prayer to “God” as general as it might have been.

    When I pointed it out she condescendingly told me that we just were coming at it from two different points of view which wasn’t a bad thing and also that I shouldn’t say her remark demonstrated Christian privilege because that’s not the kind of person she was.

    I’m kind of thinking it might be time to let that friendship die but I just don’t know.  Anyway, thanks for pointing out that when people like me speak up it’s just because we know if we don’t then we’re going to be overlooked.

  • Carstonio

    Good point. I agree with Fred that including “so help me Whoever” is not a First Amendment issue and that ultimately it’s the oath-taker’s individual choice. Still, it’s wrong for any society to treat a specific religion as normative, because that discourages individuals from following other religions even when it’s technically legal for them to do so. When presidents include that phrase, they don’t violate the Amendment but they risk being misinterpreted as sectarian role models, as lending normativity to their specific faiths. A celebrity endorsement rather than a government one. The office has powerful symbolic value, with FDR popularizing hard-boiled detective fiction and JFK doing the same for the James Bond novels. That’s why presidents need to show more care when talking about their own faiths, and generally Obama has shown that type of care. 

  • 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

  • CoolHandLNC

    According to Article II of the constitution, the president must solemnly swear, or can opt to affirm, but it says nothing about divine assistance. 

    Nor are new citizens required to say “so help me God”. Per the the USCIS website (linked from Fred’s link):

    If you are unable or unwilling to take the oath with the words “on oath” and “so help me God” included, you must notify USCIS that you wish to take a modified Oath of Allegiance.   Applicants are not required to provide any evidence or testimony to support a request for this type of modification. See 8 CFR 337.1(b).

    This is such a non-issue.

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

     The fact that the default version of the citizenship does contain religious language is not, actually, a non-issue. Defaults matter.


  • CoolHandLNC

    Oh, I agree that it shouldn’t be in the default version, but I don’t think it is violating anyone’s rights. Maybe it is a good first exercise in citizenship. We should have some secret reward given those whose first act in becoming a citizen is to tell an official  “hey! I don’t have to say that!”. Not only have they done their research, but they understand that we follow authority but are not subservient to it.

  • Lori


    Oh, I agree that it shouldn’t be in the default version, but I don’t think it is violating anyone’s rights.   

    Easy to say when you’re not the one excluded by the default.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

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

    This is why nonbelievers get annoyed–it is assumed that everyone is a religious believer, that being a believer is the default position, and we “must notify” people if we are not.  Does that really strike you as a non-issue?

    For that matter, I do wonder why politicians don’t just swear on the Constitution…yanno, that thing they are swearing to uphold, rather than on religious material.

  • CoolHandLNC

    I do like arguing with liberals for a change! I get so tired of the mentally constipated conservatives we tend to have in my neighborhood.

    When the citizenship oath was written, in 1929, the majority of immigrants were religious. That is probably still the case now. If we were (re)writing it today, it would probably be different, but there is a lot of inertia in tradition. The point of the phrase is to make the statement binding in the strongest sense but, of course, that varies depending on the individual’s ethical (and religious) framework, for which an allowance is made.Likewise, there is a statement about bearing arms that was added in 1950. Most people are not pacifists, but some are. An allowance is made for them too, but not by default.The vast majority either have no trouble with the phrasing or don’t care enough to object. Those who do care enough to object can. So while I would support changing it, I think the issue is way, way, way down the list of priorities.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    One of the big points of having a democracy is to at least try to make sure that the rights of the minority are not trampled by the whim of the majority.  And so, why should the default be for belief, with the onus put on the nonbelievers to inform someone that they want a “modified” oath?  Why not just say, “This is the oath.  If you want to pledge to a god or gods, do so at this point”?

    btw, welcome to a place with plenty of liberals…where “tradition” is not automatically assumed to be a good thing! 

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

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

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Wednesday

    (a) That new citizens can opt-out of “so help me God” has not always been clearly communicated to those seeking citizenship. A friend of mine from New Zealand was not aware he had an option to omit “so help me God” from his oath in advance.

    (b) The default should not involve a single male deity (who is clearly meant to be the god of Abraham, from cultural context), because it means that those who do not worship a single male deity have to deal with extra immigration bureau shenanigans — maybe it’s small, but it’s one more thing they have to do on top of all the other hoops we make them jump through.

    Privileging prospective citizens for having the right kind of religion by making it easier for them to become citizens (by however slight a margin) is a bad thing for our immigration process to do.

  • CoolHandLNC

    For (a), I would say again that it is an exercise in being American. In this country you mostly have to look out for yourself, caveat emptor, so you have to do your research and read the fine print.

    For (b), we are slowly removing feminine suffixes from our language. Nobody is confused if women are called actors, or executors, or waiters. Sometimes “-man” is used in a gender neutral fashion, as in chairman. That is a change in meaning from the past. It does not imply a default masculinity unless you really want it to. Why do you want it to? So why should the word “God” imply masculine? Unless, of course you want it to.  It is arguable that the cultural context is the god of Abraham. If so, only nominally so. A lot of 18th and early 19th century documents use the term more in reference to a vague civic God. To conflate the use of the term “God” as it appears in civic rituals with its use in religion is an oversimplification.We all think more-or-less the same thing when we see the word “horse” or “elephant”, but we all think something different when we see the word “God”. Do not be so concerned about what other people think it means, when you can change at will what it means to you.The irony here is that while I argue to one side that it is not helpful to give the term more meaning than it has, I argue to the other that we should remove these references to God exactly because they lack meaning or, worse, they demean God.

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master      that’s all.”

  • Carstonio

     I suspect those earlier references weren’t to a “vague civic God” but to the Christian one, since that religion was far more normative in US society back then.

  • Lori


    This is such a non-issue.   

    The fact that the God-free oath for new citizens is the modified version and that one must make a special request in order to take it means that no, it is not a non-issue. It would be a non-issue if the situation was exactly the opposite as it is now—the official version made no mention of God, but those feeling strongly about mentioning God could as for a modified version that allowed them to do so.

  • Splitting Image

    “I swear on the soul of my father, Domingo Montoya, I will faithfully execute the office…”

  • AnonaMiss

    The problem with what you said, Fred, is that if you view an oath on the swearer’s religious tradition as being stronger or more binding/safe than an affirmation without, because of the belief of the oath-maker, then you’re effectively saying that non-believers’ affirmations are less trustworthy than believers’ affirmations.

    If we have non-believer A and believer B and both say the text of the oath without the swearing part, then we would consider A and B to have sworn oaths of equivalent solemnity, because they said the exact same thing. If B goes on to add “I swear to god,” then we have 3 possibilities: his modified oath is weaker, the same strength as, or stronger than the unmodified oath.

    I think we can ignore the ‘weaker’ case.

    If it’s the same as, then the extra bit is just a gesture, reminding himself and his audience of his faith; I’m fine with this.

    But you suggest that a believer’s swearing will strengthen the oath, make him less likely to break it – and less likely than the equal-and-opposite non-believer A. This implies that we should prefer to believe B over A, because B has made a stronger oath.

  • Lori

    I don’t think this is what Fred is implying. This is not automatically a comparison between an oath taken by person A and one taken by person B.  Obviously lots of people do make that comparison and denigrate the nonbeliever’s oath, but I don’t think that’s what Fred is doing.

    I think the comparison here is between 2 different versions of the oath taken by the same person, who happens to be a believer. For some believers the oath that mentions God would indeed be a stronger oath than one which does not, and that’s what Fred seems to be talking about.

    Of course, for some believers (or at least people claiming belief) the oath including God wouldn’t actually be stronger, they’d just like to think it is or to have you think it is. That’s where I think the problem comes in. We give too much credence to the idea that the trappings of belief have real weight, even when the person’s behavior gives no indication that they do. That in turn gives Christianists leverage for their self-serving attacks on nonbelievers.

  • AnonaMiss

    I know that’s not what Fred intends to say, but I do think it’s an inherent consequence of what he has said.

    If “so help me god” is anything more than a rhetorical flourish, the smart money would be on, all other things being equal, preferring a candidate who says “so help me god” to a candidate who does not. The candidate who says it may not consider it any more binding than the oath alone, but the candidate who would not say it, didn’t even say something to be extra-bound by. If there’s even a 1% chance the candidate who would say it would be held by it, then we should prefer the candidate who would say it – because 1% chance of extra loyalty to the oath because of an ‘extra loyalty clause’ is better than no extra loyalty clause.

  • Ben English

    I don’t think that’s really what he’s arguing. If the oath taker is religious and chooses to use an element of their faith in their oath, then it really shouldn’t effect how we see the oath. I wouldn’t trust an oath that Romney swore on the Bible and a stack of Mormon holy books,  “so help me God, may he strike me dead” because Romney is a liar and does not tell the truth.

    We should base our trust in candidates on the content of their character as demonstrated by their words and actions. But for the candidates personally, if they feel compelled add a religious component to their oath to emphasize the seriousness to themselves? The First Amendment  is more than just the establishment clause.

  • Michael Pullmann

    Not that it’s likely to happen, but sometimes I wonder what I, as an agnostic, would put my left hand on.  The puckish part of me thinks it’d be funny to use a book of riddles.  Or maybe a jar of Nickelodeon’s green slime (after all, one of the central statements of my agnosticism is that “I don’t know”).

  • Patrick

    “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.”

    If that were why Obama was saying it, then you’d have a point.

    But its not.

    In an aspirational sense, it would be nice if we had a country where a President could say, or not say, “So help me God,” based on an expression of his own beliefs.  But we don’t.

    Even if Obama genuinely doesn’t want to say “So help me God,” he’s going to suck it up and do it in order to avoid half the country losing its freaking mind.  Which is why, even though he’s not going to listen, its nice to point out as often as possible that this dynamic we’ve got going here is wretched and shouldn’t be.  The “So help me God” IS exclusionary, its INTENDED to be exclusionary, and it has a large constituency who live it precisely for its exclusionary effect.

  • NS

    While in theory it is Barack Obama’s free choice to add “So help me God”, in practice, he does not have a free choice. 

    “So help me God” can only be a free, optional expression of Barack Obama’s faith if Obama had the actual possibility of doing something other.

    So, a thought experiment:

    If, in January 2009, Obama had decided to omit mention of God after his oath… would he be president-elect now?

    If, in January 2009, Obama had decided to  instead append “inshallah” to his oath… would he be president-elect now?

    If, in January 2009, Obama had decided to affirm rather than swear… would he be president-elect now?

    Answers: no; hell no; probably not.

    I conclude: “so help me God” was not Barack Obama’s free expression of religious belief , because — although he almost certainly did mean it — if he HADN’T meant it, he would have had to say it anyway.

    And that is a religious test for office. Yes, the ability of America to elect Muslims and Hindus and non-believers to congress is a laudable advance. But no, that does not mean that the office of the president is also open to non-Christians. In practice, whatever the constitution says, the Oval Office is a spot reserved for the churched.

  • Ben English

     That’s an issue with the hearts and minds of the American people. It’s a shitty state of affairs but feeling compelled to add it for the sake of public opinion isn’t unconstitutional.

    Plus, Obama’s not up for reelection now so he can choose to say it or not say it as he sees fit.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     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.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Add me to the list of people who think the “voluntary” nature of religious language in such oaths is at best problematic in modern culture. The more I expect to be punished for saying “no”, the less meaningful my “yes” becomes.

  • LL

    As an atheist, it doesn’t really bother me too terribly much when religious expressions are included voluntarily by people (as in an oath). I don’t give their word more weight because they include “so help God” – whether those people think I should or not.  Swearing to God that you are telling the truth is not very persuasive, FYI. Liars say shit like that all the time. Of course, simply swearing an oath at all is also not very persuasive. I look at it as a pointless formality, like when the minister asks people assembled at a wedding if anyone has any objections. 

    Having said that, I’d also be fine with all the religious junk disappearing from government (like being on our money and, most importantly, from the thought processes of our elected officials). If your religious beliefs have to be enforced by the government, maybe they’re just not that great. 

    Surely religious people know that only idiots assume religious people don’t lie, cheat, steal, kill, etc. I have come to view religious people as no more honest, truthful, moral than anybody else. I do view those who support many Republican politicians as less so, OTOH. Sorry, but when you support people who lie about science (or disregard it entirely) and tell us we should hate people because they’re poor or non-white or gay, that’s what happens. We know you by your “works.” 

  • LL

    Sorry, I meant “so help  me God” in that first part there. 

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    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.

    Because the people who object don’t think “If a person who believes in the bible swears on the bible, they are making a sacred vow that they will take seriously because of their faith, and therefore swearing on a holy book you dom’t believe in is pretty much just like swearing with your fingers crossed.”  They think “The bible is a magic totem, and when someone swears on it it doesn’t matter if they believe or not, they are giving God magical authorization to smite them extra hard if they break their oath.”  It’s part of that whole thing the religious right does where they seem to think that God is some kind of genie who you can bind and control via the right incantations.  (I think, now that I say it, that there *are* religions who think of their scriptures in this way, that the scripture itself has objectively real magic powers. But my understanding is that christianity is not one of those religion).

    Though to some extent, what they’re really objecting to is that Ellison and Gabbard aren’t christians. They’ve just focused their outrage there because they know they can’t come out and say “Nonchrisitians should be banned from public office”.

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

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     > They think “The bible is a magic totem, and when someone swears on it it doesn’t matter if they believe or not, they are giving God magical authorization to smite them extra hard if they break their oath.”

    Sometimes they’re thinking that the Bible is a symbol of American cultural tradition  (because, on this view, America is not a religious plurality, or at least ought not be) and swearing on a Bible is therefore a symbolic expression of my willingness to subordinate myself to that tradition, whether that tradition is mine or not.

    This is similar to the sense in which my wearing a suit and tie to a meeting is sometimes seen as a way of symbolically expressing my willingness to subordinate myself to the cultural norms of suit-and-tie wearers (that is, a certain social and economic class, were we permitted to talk about class that way in the U.S.).

  • 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…

  • CoolHandLNC

    Fabulous discussion!

    Now we are getting into good arguments from removing religious expression from civic ritual! Not because it offends someone but because it debases religion. The value of religious expression is inversely proportional to the degree to which it is rewarded. The value of prayer is decreased to the extents that it divides rather than unites.(To my atheist friends: I believe that prayer is not for God, but for us. A prayer can be powerful without even a mention of God or divine intervention. Is it still a prayer? I like to think so.)

  • Carstonio

    In my experience, “because it offends someone” is most often used on this issue to belittle religious minorities, like they need fainting couches whenever they hear them name “God.” When government endorses some religions over others, obviously it debases religion in general, but the main problem is that it interferes with religious freedom.

  • CoolHandLNC

    Well I certainly don’t intend it to belittle religious minorities, but rather to belittle outrage. Outrage being the national pastime, it really isn’t worth much in public discourse.

  • connorboone

    Righteous outrage has done more to push America to become a more progressive and inclusive country than any other emotion.  Righteous outrage helped to end slavery and segregation, to end the official categorization of certain jobs as ‘women’s work,’ and has finally, in a few states, led a majority to promote equal marriage.

    There’s a difference between righteous outrage, outrage at some people being treated as lesser than others; and unrighteous outrage, being outraged at people daring to question your long-standing privileges. 

    Righteous outrage is very worthwhile.

  • 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.

  • jedgeco

    A serious question for Seidel: If religious rhetoric is “empty,” how can it also be “exclusionary and distasteful”?  If it has no meaning, how can it simultaneously be meaningful?

  • CeeQ

    Never understood the whole hoo-ha about swearing only on the Bible. Another thing the pharisees in the Evangelical church has messed up. It’s like a person with integrity and character is entirely inconceivable unless they are a Christian. Who started this self righteous trend? No wait, let me guess…..two words….Moral. Majority. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m pretty sure it’s older than that.

  • 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?)

  • CeeQ

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

  • 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.

  • Seiber

    Your argument would have merit if all vows were held equally.  People who refuse to at least give lip-service to God (not /a/ god, even, it has to be a specific one) are not going to face the same treatment as those who do.  They’ll stick out as obvious rebels against tradition, people ‘making trouble’ when everyone else has been happy to go along with the crowd, and for many atheism is synonymous with being untrustworthy.

    The president is intended to govern over all of us. We protest when he vows to protect all of us but invokes the name of a god only some of us believe in–same reason I get that little eyetwitch whenever he says God Bless America. It’s not just because he wants God to bless America. It’s because the current power structure insists he do so whether he likes it or not.

  • Wingedwyrm

    1.  We may see “so help me God” as not mandatory officially, just as the call for God to bless, or to continue to bless, the United States of America is not officially mandatory.  However, it is unofficially mandatory simply based on the notion that not doing so will cause more problems than doing so.

    No, I’m not claiming that the number of Christians who will make a stink is the majority or even that numerically signifigant a minority.  They are, however, freaking loud enough to make it an issue when, in the last inaugural address, they made a stink about President Obama acknwoledging the existence of atheists.  Fact of the matter is that, for Presidents and anybody seeking that office, if you don’t make regular shows of piety, you’re not getting that office.

    That means that, functionally, “So hep me God” and “may God bless the United States of America” are requirements and, as such, should be combatted.  It’s a part of a tradition that makes it nigh-impossible for someone who isn’t Christian to attain the office of POTUS.  This requirement goes extra for Obama who is so often accused of not being a Christian.  (Often accused of being A. an atheist B. a Muslim C. either or depending on what’s more damning at the moment or D. both because comprehending what either is isn’t necessary for the accusation.)  So, it makes it more effective that Obama would be the one to fight it.

    2.  Your faith, whatever that is, can inform your values and your values can inform your performace as an elected official.  But, your faith, due to our 1st Amendment, should not directly inform your performance as an elected official.

    Example: If your faith tells you that personhood starts at conception and that said personhood gives one rights of life that override a woman’s right to body autonomy, and you take that value to your performance as an elected official, you and I will have an argument, but your arguments are not valid for law if they rely upon the fact that God says so.  Any attempt to introduce your faith directly into your role as a lawmaker violates the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment.

    Having the oath include any faith whatsoever essentially says that it is not only allowed, but encouraged for one to codify their faith, rather than their values, into law.

    Put short, as far as one’s service as an elected official in the US government is concerned, whatever god or spirits you believe in can be your advisors, but your only orders come from the voters.

    3.  Yes, let’s look at the stink made by Christians (a vocally signifigant, if not numerically so, portion thereof) around people who don’t use their particular faith in their oaths, whether they be using their own faith or not using any at all.  That’s because the  invocation of God has become not a presentation of faith (or at least that has become the lesser reason) but a presentation of solidarity with the dominant religious tribe.  So, yes, it is exclusionary.  It is a way of saying “everybody that counts agrees with this little addition.”

    I want to be clear.  I’m not saying that public officials should not have faith or be open about their faith and how it informs their values.  I am, however, saying that introducing faith directly into their public life, even through such small things as a quick invocation at the end of the oath of office, introduces a whole host of problems both with regards to the freedom of those that don’t share that faith and with regards to expanding a battle for tribal dominance to a place where it just shouldn’t go.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    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”.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

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

  • 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.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    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.)

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    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.

  • 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.

  • http://twitter.com/emhornerbooks Emily Horner

    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. 

  • 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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.