So Help You God?

"While every inaugural speech is different, crafted for the unique challenges of the new administration, the thirty five words of the presidential oath of office have been spoken identically since the first one in April of 1789. That oath completes the long process of primaries, convention, campaign, and election, but not as most people understand it. The final words of the oath refer to the man-made document that bestows the mantle of head of government on a single person with a vow to, ".....protect and defend the constitution of the United States." Yet, in the memories of all now alive, the oath concludes with, "So help me God."

In December of 2008 Chief Justice John Roberts was personally served with a complaint signed by Mike Newdow to enjoin his doing what others had long done in the prompting of the oath of office. Roberts must have known immediately that the injunction was valid,(even though eventually dismissed on narrow grounds) as he himself had recently taken his own oath to protect that constitution that clearly spelled out the words of the oath , and no tradition of error could justify an exception. His legal counsel brought up the question to the President elect, who requested that the four word prayer be appended as is traditional. But this did not solve Robert's quandary of administering an oath to defend and preserve a document that in the very next breath is breached.

At some point Justice Roberts came up with a solution that would preserve tradition while following the constitution, and decided to keep this to himself. What Justice Roberts did was to prompt the oath, the thirty five constitutional words, exactly as the president-- then elect, was required to say them. And when the formal oath was completed, without skipping a beat, changing the tonality from statement to the question, "So help you God?" by this, demarcating the required oath from the optional personal statement. Knowing that this was not going to be an easy thing to coordinate with an unprepared oath taker, he still decided not to do a rehearsal with Mr. Obama. It is no wonder that he flubbed what seemed like a simple one minute recitation.

While this change of a single word went unnoticed, it affirmed something central to our democracy-- that one's faith, no matter how important to the individual, is not to be part of the secular structure of our government. What this also illustrates is that this removal of God from the oath may only be done so subtly as to go unnoticed--by the mere substitution of a single word and change of inflection of the prompting.

While time marches on history repeats itself, even if in different forms in different places. At the moment of this inauguration there are protests in the streets of Cairo over this issue of church and state that was decided by our founders over two centuries ago. The rioters express the deep resentment toward their new government that they fear could lead to a tyranny of the religious majority, having no secular Constitution such as ours to prevent it. It also specifies a presidential oath, unlike ours one that begins with, "I swear by Almighty God"

The inaugural ceremony will include two prayers, which in the recent past have been to God or Jesus, which reflect the cultural values of our majority. The oath of office is different; it is the work of mere mortals who created a document that achieved its purpose of getting every state to sign on, and just as in today's Congress, those who passed it must have been disturbed by the compromises that they had to accept.

Yet, with all its flaws there is also genius there. The newly sworn president certainly may ask God's help, but as an individual rather than part of an official action. Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed this in a very quiet way four years ago, as I expect he will repeat on Monday. It is important at this time that the meaning of this be told, as those in distant corners of the world should take courage from our own secular Constitution that has protected the great diversity of beliefs that have thrived under its banner. It should be a model that is available for countries who are struggling to find their way.
My Video of Capital Oath in 1/4 speed, "Did Obama nod yes"
Update 1/20/13 Video of private oath-Roberts follows this new tradition
Reference Addendum

1 comment:

  1. I have been sceptical of the so-called Arab spring from the beginning because it seems obvious to me that a democracy amounts to nothing more than the tyranny of the majority UNLESS it is kept in check by what you call a secular constitution, or by a bill of rights, that guarantees the rights of minorities and, at the same time, provides the means to enforce these rights, for example, by having an independent supreme court (or constitutional court, as it is called in Germany) that can be called upon to settle disputes. The emphasis here is on "independent," of course.

    In the absence of such constitutional guarantees, a democracy can be come a nightmare for parts of the population. To make the point, perhaps too bluntly, I have been telling friends who got starry-eyed about the so-called Arab Spring that women and Christians were better off in Iraq under Saddam, unless, of course, he had something against an individual (my apologies if this statement is based on misinformation, which may well be the case).