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America's Culture War: Founding Fathers

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So Help Me God

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

Among the multitude of attempts to eradicate America’s Christian heritage from daily life is the ongoing clamor to jettison the expression “so help me God” from oaths taken by witnesses in courts, by federal employees (including members of the armed forces), and others. For example a district court judge in North Carolina stated that such religious references should be removed because not all people subscribe to the Christian perspective: “The burden should not be on those individuals to speak up and request an oath that does not mention God or use the Christian Bible” (“Nutty North...,” 2004). Atheists have long been pecking away at this feature of American jurisprudence, but now are being joined by increased numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, et al., in the U.S.

Of course, the first question is: Why even have oaths that a person utters before testifying in court or assuming an elected office? An oath is a formal declaration or promise that one is going to tell the truth or conduct himself or herself in a truthful manner. The oath is intended to place the individual in a position to feel a strong sense of obligation to be honest. Upon what is this “strong sense of obligation” based? Whence does any person’s sense of duty, obligation, or conduct arise? Beyond any retribution or repercussions that may come from one’s fellow humans in the event of perjury, the only possible ultimate sense of responsibility would have to come from the individual’s belief in a Higher Power to whom one must eventually give an account—and by whom one could be punished for dishonesty. While the atheist may cry long and loud that he is “moral,” and that he feels as strong an obligation to be truthful as the Christian, logically there is no reason for him to be committed to any system of morality—except his own. In the words of French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, “Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist” (1961, p. 485).

The Founding Fathers and judicial authorities from the very beginning of American civilization recognized this fact—and stressed it over and over again. The evidence is voluminous that they insisted very forthrightly that daily proceedings in our nation depend heavily upon the Christian morality of the population. For example, listen to the timely question posed by George Washington in his farewell address to the nation: “Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the Oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice?” (1796, emp. added). He was speaking of the almost-universal commitment to the Christian religion that existed at the time. One of the Fathers of American Jurisprudence, New York State Supreme Court Chief Justice James Kent, asserted in 1811 that “Christianity was parcel of the law, and to cast contumelious reproaches upon it, tended to weaken the foundation of moral obligation, and the efficacy of oaths.... [W]hatever strikes at the root of Christianity tends manifestly to the dissolution of civil government” (People v. Ruggles, emp. added).

In arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, the famed Daniel Webster explored the essence of oath-taking: “ ‘What is an oath?’ ...[I]t is founded on a degree of consciousness that there is a Power above us that will reward our virtues or punish our vices.... [O]ur system of oaths in all our courts, by which we hold liberty and property and all our rights, are founded on or rest on Christianity and a religious belief ” (1844, pp. 43,51, emp. added). Indeed, this explains why one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution, Rufus King, affirmed:

[In o]ur laws...by the oath which they prescribe, we appeal to the Supreme Being so to deal with us hereafter as we observe the obligation of our oaths. The Pagan world were and are without the mighty influence of this principle which is proclaimed in the Christian system—their morals were destitute of its powerful sanction while their oaths neither awakened the hopes nor fears which a belief in Christianity inspires (Reports of the Proceedings..., 1821, p. 575).

And what of the remarks of Justice James Iredell, appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by George Washington? He claimed in 1788: “According to the modern definition of an oath, it is considered a ‘solemn appeal to the Supreme Being for the truth of what is said by a person who believes in the existence of a Supreme Being and in a future state of rewards and punishments according to that form which would bind his conscience most’ ” (The Debates..., 1836, 4:196).

So firmly embedded in the American consciousness was this principle of taking an oath as an appeal to the God of the Bible (to establish that the individual was being truthful), the first President of the United States added the words “so help me God” to the oath of office given in the Constitution for the swearing in of the president—a custom repeated by every president since (“Inaugurals of Presidents...,” n.d.). Likewise, several of the original state constitutions employed oath-taking as prerequisite to holding state office. These oaths were typically coupled with an affirmation of the candidate’s belief in God as “the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked” (Constitution of Vermont, 1777; Constitution of Pennsylvania, 1776; cf. Constitution of South Carolina, 1778; et al.).

Many Americans would be shocked and incredulous if they knew that early on in America’s history, atheists and those who did not believe in the God of the Bible (and a future state of rewards and punishments) were disqualified from serving as witnesses in courts of law. Daniel Webster reminded the high court of what was universally understood in 1844: “We all know that the doctrine of the...law is that there must be in every person who enters court as a witness, be he Christian or Hindoo [sic], there must be a firm conviction on his mind that falsehood or perjury will be punished either in this world or the next or he cannot be admitted as a witness. If he has not this belief, he is disfranchised” (1844, p. 43, emp. added). “Disenfranchised” means deprived of the right to serve as a witness. Justice Joseph Story, also a Father of American Jurisprudence, and appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President James Madison, insisted: “[I]nfidels and pagans were banished from the halls of justice as unworthy of credit” (1851, 2:8-9). Or, again, as Daniel Webster argued before the Supreme Court, an oath is “a religious appeal, founded upon a conviction that perjury will be punished hereafter. But if no superior power is acknowledged, the party cannot be a witness. Our lives and liberties and property all rest upon the sanctity of oaths” (Vidal v. Girard..., 1844, emp. added).

The Bible likewise enjoins the sanctity of oaths as an appropriate device by which to impress upon the oath taker the essentiality of telling the truth in view of God, eternity, and eventual reckoning—e.g., Numbers 30:2; Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 1:20. It is perjurers (or “false swearers”—ASV) that are condemned. In fact, God Himself has taken oaths in Bible history, swearing by Himself—since no greater authority exists (Genesis 22:16ff; Hebrews 6:13-17; Luke 1:73; Psalm 104:4; Ezekiel 20:42).

Thus the Founding Fathers were simply following Bible teaching in this regard. The influx into America of rival religions and ideologies, and the politically correct tendency to accommodate and embrace these philosophies—even to the point of removing an appeal to God to tell the truth—is yet another indication of the dismantling of America’s Christian heritage, the erosion of American values, and the inevitable dissolution of the American way of life.

REFERENCES

Constitution of Pennsylvania (1776), The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, [On-line], URL: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/states/pa08.htm.

Constitution of South Carolina (1778),The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, [On-line], URL: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/states/sc02.htm.

Constitution of Vermont (1777),The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, [On-line], URL: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/states/vt01.htm.

The Debates in the Several States Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (1836), ed. Jonathan Elliot (Washington, DC: Jonathan Elliot).

“Inaugurals of Presidents of the United States: Some Precedents and Notable Events” (no date), [On-line], URL: http://www.aoc.gov/aoc/inaugural/inaug_fact.cfm.

“Nutty North Carolina” (2004), Tongue Tied, [On-line], URL: http://www.tonguetied.us/archives/week_2004_03_07.php.

The People v. Ruggles (1811), 8 Johns 290.

Reports of the Proceedings and Debates of the Convention of 1821, Assembled for the Purpose of Amending the Constitution of the State of New York (Albany, NY: E. and E. Hosford).

Sartre, Jean Paul (1961), “Existentialism and Humanism,” French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre, ed. Leonard M. Marsak (New York: Meridian).

Story, Joseph (1851), Life and Letters of Joseph Story, ed. William Story (Boston, MA: Charles Little and James Brown).

Vidal v. Girard’s Executors (1844), 43 U.S. 127.

Washington, George (1796), “The Farewell Address,” [On-line], URL: http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/farewell/transcript.html.

Webster, Daniel (1844), Mr. Webster’s Speech in Defence of the Christian Ministry and in Favor of the Religious Instruction of the Young, Delivered in the Supreme Court of the United States, February 10, 1844, in the Case of Stephen Girard’s Will (Washington, DC: Gales and Seaton).




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