Oaths

Oaths February 10, 2020

 Oath: A solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one’s future action or behavior. 

When Mitt Romney defended his vote to convict Trump in the impeachment trial, he gave the following justification:

The allegations made in the articles of impeachment are very serious. As a Senator-juror, I swore an oath, before God, to exercise “impartial justice.” I am a profoundly religious person. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential.

Everyone who has recited the Pledge of Allegiance has taken an oath.  It is an oath of loyalty to our nation, represented by the flag.  According to US Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 4, proper behavior during the recitation of the Pledge is as follows:

Only recite or read the Pledge of Allegiance in the presence of a flag.

Before the Pledge is recited, stand and face the flag. If something is blocking your view, face the general direction of the flag.

Place your right hand over your heart during the Pledge. Men wearing hats or head coverings should remove them.

Men and women in uniform should stand silently, facing the flag and render the military salute.

We do not swear this oath on a Bible, as most other oaths are traditionally administered, but it is still an oath. That raises the question: Why a hand on the Bible? Doesn’t God hear it unless you are touching his book?

In Biblical times they did it differently:

In Biblical times, to swear a most sacred oath, the swearer made his oath by holding on to the oath-giver’s genitals.[i]

If you think about the roots of the word “testify,” you can see why that made sense back then. Read the referenced article and you will find out a lot more about the origin of words like testimony, testament, and even the Old and New Testament. Holy balls!

That was fun. Back to business…..

Consider the oath that a witness in a trial takes

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.?

What should a nonbeliever do? If he/she refuses to say “I do” or demands that the final words be removed, their testimony may be treated with suspicion by jurors. They are not legally required to affirm the oath, and may arrange for a different oath, omitting or changing those words. The U.S. Constitution permits an affirmation in place of an oath to allow atheists to give testimony in court. Would that affect the opinion of a juror if they noticed? In the deep South Bible Belt, it probably would. In the past, atheists have been automatically disqualified from jury panels in some states.

In the United states, seven state constitutions include religious tests that would effectively prevent atheists from holding public office, and in some cases, being a juror or witness, though these have not generally been enforced since the early twentieth century. The Constitution specifically forbids a religious test for Federal public office. That was extended to apply to all public offices in a Supreme Court case in 1961.[ii] Those laws, like the “blue laws” that prohibit certain activities like shopping or entertainment on Sundays, should be removed. Their survival is implicit approval of the restrictions they impose.

Are oaths still relevant today? The juror’s oath could certainly be eliminated, and replaced with a simple statement from the Judge warning that false testimony is a felony. Other oaths administered on public officials should be voluntary, and not part of any official procedure. They are an antiquated ceremony that serves no purpose beyond political posturing.

[i] https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/158683/why-place-a-hand-on-the-bible-instead-of-the-judges-genitals-when-taking-an-oat

[ii] https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/cases/torcaso-v-watkins


Browse Our Archives