The Origins of “So Help Me God” – Swearing in Our Leaders
We’ve all seen our President and other elected leaders take their oaths of office, most often placing their hand on a Bible, settling their oaths finally with the words “So help me God.”
Many say, “Aha! So our Founders never meant for separation of church and state!” This is not so. Our Constitution does not require that Presidents or other leaders take oath upon the Bible – nor does it require the repetition of “So help me God.” In fact, the Constitution clearly spells out that oaths are to be duly secular in content.
The Presidential oath of office, Article II, section I of the Constitution, states:
Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: “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.”
While we hear “So help me God” in a President’s inauguration, the words are customary, merely tradition by now. They have no legal significance, nor are required.
Additionally, there’s that word, “affirmation”. It is worth noting that the President is allowed to simply affirm his faithfulness to the Constitution. The words required are described as an “Oath or Affirmation” – affirmation was inserted here to allow a President to avoid swearing oaths to God as a condition of taking office.
Most recently, with the induction of the 113th Congress last week, newly-elected Rep. Krysten Sinema (D-AZ), religiously “unaffiliated”, choose to be sworn in on the Constitution, not the Bible. Sinema noted that she is “not a member of a faith community” and that all Americans deserve both “freedom of religion and freedom from religion.” Sinema is not the first official to divert from the norm when taking oath. When Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) was elected in 2006 as the first Muslim member of Congress, he chose to be sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran. This year, we also saw the election of Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), as the first Hindu in the House, and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) as the first Buddhist in the Senate.
Oaths of office for federal and state officials are described in Article VI of the Constitution:
“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
In other words, the Constitution guarantees that there shall be no religious test for office. And since much of the Bible makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like a children’s book, this was probably a good bit of foresight on the part of our Founders.
For further reading on the religious diversity of our Congress, check out this excellent and informative Pew Forum article, published just after the November 2012 election.