As Joe Biden is inaugurated as President of the United States this week, Madeleine Pennington reflects on the phrase “so help me God” at the end of the Presidential Oath. 20/01/2021
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. (So help me God.)
As the world turns to watch Joe Biden inaugurated as President of the United States this week, perhaps nothing so aptly typifies the peculiarly American brand of secularism (and, it must be said, the unenviable situation the country now finds itself in) than the conspicuous phrase “So help me God” at the end of the Presidential Oath.
After all, this is an explicitly religious exhortation which is markedly absent from the version of the Oath prescribed by the Constitution itself, but which has traditionally been included in practice – in the first instance, as a nod to George Washington, who (legend has it) spontaneously included it as he swore his own Oath to become the first American President in 1789. This would have been all the more notable given Washington’s role in presiding over the Constitutional Convention.
In this sense, ‘the faith bit’ is at once constitutionally excluded and culturally obliged – which is, of course, how much of the relationship between faith and politics in America has proceeded since the nation was born.
Potential reasons for leaving it out to start with only serve to bolster this image. Obviously its exclusion enables the non–religious to swear the full Oath in good faith – and so to take the highest public office in the nation. This fulfils Article Six of the Constitution against religious tests for public office. Yet, unsurprisingly for America, some have also suggested a religious motivation for the omission: that it was intended to appease the significant Quaker population of nascent America, given that Quakers refuse oath–taking on principle (taking Matthew 5.33–37 in its literal sense). In the words of the Quaker William Penn: “It is vain and insolent, to think that a man, when he pleaseth, can make the great God of heaven a witness or judge in any matter … to help or forsake him, as the truth or falseness of his oath requires, when he saith ‘So help me God.’”
Simply let your yes be yes, and your no be no.
To be clear, this is speculation – just as the tales of Washington’s impromptu show of piety are themselves historically dubious. But the cultural layering associated with the phrase remains either way – and serves to remind us just how far America’s theoretical secularism has been entangled with religious principle from the start.
Not only this, but the religious principle at stake is, specifically, a concern for truth and integrity over hypocrisy, in faithfulness to the commands of Christ who is Truth made visible. It is therefore especially resonant (in the ‘thinly–veiled–irony’ sense of the word) that the outgoing Vice President Mike Pence – famously, a devout Christian himself – chose to conclude his letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi with the same phrase, following the events at the Capitol on January 6th. As Joe Biden exhorted President Trump to “fulfil his oath and defend the Constitution by demanding an end to this siege”, and Americans reeled from what had happened, Pence wrote to Pelosi (who was at the time demanding that he should invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office) –
“After the horrific events of this last week, our Administration’s energy is directed to ensuring an orderly transition. The Bible says that ‘for everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven… a time to heal, …and a time to build up.’ That time is now… Work with us to lower the temperature and unite the country… I pledge to you that I will continue to do my part to work in good faith with the incoming administration to ensure an orderly transition of power. So help me God.”
Culturally, Pence’s inclusion of the phrase at the end of his letter positioned him as a true Christian, and a true patriot. Politically, it evoked a commitment to his own solemn oath, to the defence of American democracy, and so to the reliable defence of the Constitution itself. Morally, it underlined that he Really Does Mean What He Says. Naturally, his critics have questioned whether (as Pence claimed) the Administration’s energy really was directed at a transition of power – or indeed, whether his commitment to healing was ever really made. Pelosi’s own reaction was to set in motion the historic second impeachment of Donald Trump. But perhaps we should not worry too much about Pelosi’s reaction, given that Pence has submitted himself to the Authority he believes counts.
And that brings us to the incoming President himself. Because the mere addition of a Godly phrase to his oath this week will not be enough to “lower the temperature” of the grave situation currently facing the USA. After Trump’s active embrace of misinformation and bad faith politics of fear, trust in politicians and between one another was already nearing a historic low and perceived as declining even a year ago. The events of recent months (and still more, recent weeks) have turbo–charged this process beyond a point any of us could have imagined when he took office in 2016 – indeed, to a place lower than perhaps any of us thought the so–called “Leader of the Free World” would stoop.
Rather, what is needed is precisely a return to that inherent respect for integrity implied by the debates above: that is, a sense that words matter, a return to meaning what one says, and an honouring of good faith in the “opposition” without the reliance on cultural big guns. The fact that 30% of Americans think the election itself was stolen is a daunting starting point for any new political leader. However, Joe Biden has already shown willing in this task – not only in his political choices, but in the way he talks about responsible power (remarking on the role of faith in public service that “the greatest sin a man or woman can commit is the abuse of power”).
The stakes feel too high to fail. So help him, God.
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