‘So help me God’ isn’t in official presidential oath

c. 2013 Religion News Service

(RNS) When President Obama rests his hand on two historic Bibles to take his second-term oath of office Monday (Jan. 21), he'll add a phrase not mentioned in the Constitution: “So help me God.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts,Jr. administers the oath of office to President Barack H. Obama, the 44th president of the United States during the 56th presidential inauguration ceremony in Washington, DC on Jan. 20, 2009.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts,Jr. administers the oath of office to President Barack H. Obama, the 44th president of the United States during the 56th presidential inauguration ceremony in Washington, DC on Jan. 20, 2009.


But the Almighty's role on the Capitol steps is a controversial one.

First, there was a myth that the tradition of adding God to the oath began with George Washington. It didn't, say experts at the Library of Congress, the U.S. Senate Historical Office and the first president's home, Mount Vernon.

Although the phrase was used in federal courtrooms since 1789, the first proof it was used in a presidential oath of office came with Chester Arthur's inauguration in September 1881.

Every president since, including Obama, has followed suit.

California atheist activist Michael Newdow has battled unsuccessfully in federal court to ban the phrase. Obama notified Chief Justice John Roberts, who administers the oath, that he wanted this phrase included. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Newdow's last appeal.

Four years later, “so help me God” is unchallenged. Obama will once more use the Bible that Abraham Lincoln used in 1861. This term, he'll add a second Good Book, the Bible that Martin Luther King Jr. carried with him in all his travels.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, past chairman of the NAACP and widow of murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers, will give the invocation. The first woman to offer the invocation, she's not a member of the clergy.

The benediction will be offered by the Rev. Luis Leon, the rector of St. John's Church, an Episcopal congregation that sits across Lafayette Square from the White House. A conservative evangelical pastor, the Rev. Louie Giglio from Atlanta, was dumped from the program over his views opposing same-sex marriage.

The inauguration has included blessings by clergy for two centuries. Originally, they were offered by the Senate chaplain. After 1933, the president-elect began naming his choices.

In between the first and the final blessing, there's always a lot of God talk in the president's address.

“I challenge you to find any presidential speech that doesn't make a lot of mention of God,” says constitutional historian R.B. Bernstein who teaches law at New York Law School and political science and history at City College of New York.

George Washington arrived at his inauguration to the sound of church bells. His speech began with “fervent supplications” to the “Almighty Being” and concluded by seeing God's “divine blessing” for the nation.

Obama's first inaugural speech called out to Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and, for the first time in any inaugural address, to nonbelievers as well. That's a wide sweep now that one in five Americans say they have no religious identity.

Tuesday, the focus will shift to prayer for the president with the traditional National Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, a United Methodist pastor from Kansas, will preach the sermon.

About Kellie Moore

Kellie Moore (formerly Kotraba) served as the editor and community manager of Columbia Faith & Values through summer 2014. Although she is originally from the West – Nevada and California – she’s now proud to call Missouri home. She currently teaches English at Fr. Tolton High School.

5 Responses to “‘So help me God’ isn’t in official presidential oath”

  1. Kris Katarian

    I can see both sides of the coin on this one. The increasing number of people who don’t believe in any kind of god, or embrace a religion other than Christianity, feel that their first amendment rights are being disrespected. Those who are believers feel that including Bibles and mentions of the Christian God in the ceremony reflect their interpretation of the intent of our founding fathers. Both have equal merit.

    Since we are a country that (should) respect individual rights and responsibilities, I think that leaving it up to the person taking the oath of office as to their wishes is probably the best idea. For example Joe Biden’s family Bible (did you notice the size of that thing?) is a prized possession of his, and his desire to include it in such an important ceremony adds to it’s impressive history.

    I must admit, however, that the prayers and all of the God-speak seemed excessive and got on my nerves a bit. However, I also recognize that had President Obama not said “God” a bunch of times, all of the malevolent “birthers” would be jumping up and down and screaming about how he really is a “commysocialistmooslim who hates Amurca”. They don’t need another excuse to spew their venom.

  2. Steve Swope

    I agree with Kris on this one. Our Constitution doesn’t establish any religion as “the official religion,” so it was disappointing to see people upset when Rep. Ellison (a Muslim) used a Quran to take his oath of office. Did it make his promise any more firm? I doubt it, but it certainly was a sign of how seriously he took the promise he was making. Same with VP Biden – such a powerful family symbol surely reinforced his sense of the magnitude of the moment and action.

    But neither choice makes ME feel any better about what they’re promising, nor does all the God-talk. It winds up sounding falsely pious, pandering – even (or especially?) when some liberal friends cheer about the “gesture” of a certain person or phrase.

    But again, prayers and benedictions may have made the President feel more supported spiritually in the tasks ahead. Perhaps what would be most helpful would be a “back to basics” explanation – a background paper, say – from the President’s office on why he chose this part or that person, how the details of the event affected him personally.

  3. Kris Katarian

    I just wanted to add something that is a little bit related. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have a chaplain, paid for with taxpayer money. The chaplains lead each chamber in prayer before the start of each session. Historically, the chaplains have all been of the Christian faith.

    This feels inappropriate. Perhaps a moment of silence would suffice if they wish to start each session with contemplation.

  4. Steve Swope

    A valid point. I was invited, early in my ministry, to give the opening prayer at a political-party dinner (a church member was running for office that year). I decided to accept, and was given the opportunity to exit as soon as the meal was over but before the various speeches began. Not wanting to seem as if I were “eating and running,” I thought it would be polite to stay. I was wonderfully amused at the discomfort of one candidate whose standard speech included an off-color and tasteless joke. It was crystal-clear at that moment that my prayer and presence meant absolutely nothing, other than a pro-forma nod to some sort of cultural expectation.

  5. wrdickson

    There was an interesting piece on this in a CNN blog the other day:

    I particularly found this bit interesting, which included a bit of history I didn’t know:

    “Adams, the son of President John Adams, was a religious man. But he chose to be sworn in with his hand on a book of U.S. laws. He wanted to demonstrate that he recognized a barrier between church and state and that his loyalty was to our nation’s laws above all else.”


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