So Help Me God: Religion and Presidential Oath-Taking

By Pfander, James E. | Constitutional Commentary, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

So Help Me God: Religion and Presidential Oath-Taking


Pfander, James E., Constitutional Commentary


President Bill Clinton underwent impeachment and courted conviction and removal from office for having violated, in the words of his accusers, the religious sanctity of the oath. Representative Henry Hyde (R., Illinois) was especially unwilling to forgive Clinton's oath-breaking. In preaching the importance of the oath as a bulwark of the rule of law, Representative Hyde emphasized the religious features of the oath. Hyde argued that Clinton's promise to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, So Help Me God," went to the very heart of his obligations as the nation's chief executive.

Although the Senate and the people ultimately disagreed on the merits, one can scarcely disagree with Hyde's characterization of the oath as an advertently religious expression. It was so understood during the Founding Era, a time when many critics viewed the religious features of oath-giving as problematic.(1) Partly, this distrust of oath-giving flowed from the religiously-inspired perception that an oath might unfairly demand a promise that would send an oath-breaker to eternal damnation; partly, it reflected a desire to accommodate the rights of Quakers and others, who refused on principle to swear an oath to the Almighty; partly, it reflected a growing recognition that oath-taking might invade the rights of conscience of the increasingly deistic populace of the country.(2)

The complex considerations that inspired this opposition to oath-taking may have helped to persuade the Framers of the Constitution to leave God and the requirement of a religious oath out of the nation's fundamental charter. Unlike the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, both of which invoked God's blessing, the Constitution contains no reference to God.(3) In the text of the provision that sets forth the oath of office for the President of the United States, moreover, the Constitution contains a conspicuous omission: in contrast to the form of virtually every oath then current in the courts of law,(4) the oath for president does not conclude with the familiar words, So Help Me God.(5) That this omission reflected a policy of ending the religious nature of oath-giving comes through clearly in the rejection of a proposed amendment that would have altered the general oath requirement in Article VI to proclaim it, in essence, a religious test for office.(6) The agnostic (if not downright atheistic) character of the Constitution was well-known and grew controversial during the nineteenth century. Among a surprisingly small number of other changes, the Constitution of the Confederate States of America altered the federal Constitution to add an explicit reference to God in its preamble.(7)

But in keeping with the claims of Rep. Hyde and despite the best efforts of the Framers, presidential oath-takers traditionally intone, So Help Me God. Our tradition dates from a precedent set by President George Washington at the nation's first inaugural.(8) Although he wore a plain brown suit of good American cloth (and thus carefully avoided the pretense of European clothes even as he abandoned certain of the features of a monarchical investiture), Washington did arrange to have a Bible on hand when he gave the oath of office. Washington also chose to add the words, So Help Me God, to the oath of his office, despite their omission from the terms; set down in the Constitution. So Help Me God has been a regular feature of the event ever since, an outcome that would not have surprised the precedent-conscious first president.(9) In a real sense, then, we have a religious oath of office as a result of a constitutional amendment adopted through the precedent-setting action of the nation's first chief executive.

In this characteristically clever symposium, the editors of Constitutional Commentary invite us to blot out a single constitutional feature and to imagine how such a suppression, magnified by the accumulated weight of history and the centuries, might change our world.

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