Constitutionally, the words “so help me God” should not be embedded in official policy texts of any oath traditionally voiced by witnesses coming before the U.S. Congress.
So a proposal the House Committee on Natural Resources is reportedly considering, which would remove that phrase from policy guidelines and make it strictly voluntary, is exactly the right thing to do. Other text changes would also right a wrong.
The committee’s current policy clearly endorses the concept of belief in the absolute authority of an invisible deity, which is religious, which would be an unconstitutional validation of a specific religious belief by a government body. At present, the committee policy for swearing in witnesses is:
“The Chairman of the Committee, the Chairmen of the Subcommittees or any Member designated by the Chairman may administer oaths to any witness before the Committee. All witnesses appearing in hearings may be administered the following oath by the Chairman or his designee prior to receiving the testimony: ‘Do you solemnly swear or affirm that the testimony that you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?’”
According to a recent report in Fox News, “Dem’s to strike ‘so help you God’ from oath taken in front of key House committee, draft shows,” the Natural Resources Committee plans to propose this change. The political news site The Hill also reported on the plan, referencing Fox. See the full draft proposal here. Below is the “Oaths” policy section related to the religious statement, with proposed added text shown in red unbracketed, and text to be deleted in brackets:
“The Chair[man] of the Committee, the Chairs[men]of the Subcommittees or any Member designated by the Chair[man]may administer oaths to any witness before the Committee. All witnesses appearing in hearings may be administered the following oath by the Chair[man] or his designee prior to receiving the testimony: “Do you solemnly swear or affirm, under penalty of law, that the testimony that you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth [, so help you God]?”
In these proposed changes, you can see the two ways they are justified.
First, they remove a religious, Christianity-derived phrase as a formal recommendation in the policy — although witnesses would be free to say it voluntarily if desired — and add the secular phrase “under penalty of law” to reflect the reality that our republic is governed by human, not divine, law.The second wrong righted in this proposed text is a matter of gender-reference hygiene to render gender neutral, as it should be, because panel leaders are not always men. So, in the proposed text the masculine “Chairmen” and “Chairman” become “Chairs” and “Chair,” respectively. This proposal likely reflects the will of a large number of freshman women legislators elected in the midterm “Blue Wave” that flipped control of the House from Republican to Democrat.
These two proposed text changes reflect a desire to transform traditions that ill-reflect reality in the 21st century, and, in the case of religion, don’t reflect the intentions of the framers of the Constitution that a “wall of separation” exist between government and religion.
They also reflect the reality that to effect necessary change — i.e., discarding religious chauvinism and gender apartheid — sometimes we need to change the game.
As long as “so help me God” and “Chairman” are terms that broadly populate our documents of government, they survive and perpetuate to the next generation. These changes proposed by the Natural Resources panel should be enacted for all government documents and traditions.
It is right to eradicate them now and move on to more rational realms, like we have with Zeus and not allowing women to vote.
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