In a just a few days, Barack Obama will follow in the foot steps of previous Presidents from George W. Bush to George Washington and take the oath of office to become President of the United States. Will Obama say "so help me God"? There are many who hope he doesn't. And these same people claim that he shouldn't because (so they say) neither did George Washington.
What???? George Washington didn't say "so help me God"!?? That's their claim, and many of them are downright obsessed about it.
In addition to my writings here, I am a contributor to the blog American Creation, a group effort at discussing and debating the religious dimension to the origins of the United States.
One of the ongoing debates at American Creation is whether George Washington said "So Help Me God." A few AC contributors have become quite taken with this subject, increasingly believing that George Washington did NOT add "so help me God" at the end of his presidential oath. You can read up on the debate here and here.
And now Peter Henriquez, a George Mason University history professor, has added his two cents to the debate with an article titled "'So Help Me God': A George Washington Myth That Should be Discarded."
***See USA Today article: "No proof Washington Said 'So Help me God' - Will Obama?"***
Now, I'm the first to say that we should be honest in our portrayals of history, but I must admit a great deal of frustration at the agenda-driven nit-picking that's going on here.
Was George Washington a Man of Faith & Prayer?
Let's first understand what's really going on here. There's absolutely no question that George Washington sincerely and unequivocally believed in God and prayer. Any historian that questions this no longer deserves to be called a historian.
What's more, it's obvious to anyone with the slightest shred of objectivity and the barest knowledge of early American history that George Washington repeatedly called on the American people to ALSO believe in God and practice prayer.
One only needs to read Washington's circular letter to the states (after his resignation as General-in-Chief in the American Revolution), his First Inaugural Address, his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, and his Farewell Address to see the man's sincere faith in Providence and prayer.
If Washington had been an atheist or agnostic and religiously-motivated people had crafted a "so help me God" myth to make him into something he wasn't, THEN I would be much more sympathetic to this new revisionist effort. But, this is not the case. What we're dealing with here is the proverbial equivalent of a dispute over whether a lion can run 50 or 55 mph.
So, these claims that Washington didn't say "so help me God" at the first presidential oath are NOT driven by any desire to 'set the record straight' concerning Washington's religious faith.
Did Washington Ask for God's Help?
The next angle these revisionists take is that having "so help me God" as an official part of the presidential oath violates the Constitution -- and saying Washington added the words undercuts the Constitution.
First of all....let's get the history straight here. George Washington not only asked God for help at his inauguration, but he also asked the American people to pray for the nation and turn toward God with obedient hearts! Don't believe me? Read Washington's First Inaugural Address for yourself.
Even if George Washington didn't formally add "so help me God" to the oath, he most certainly expressed that very sentiment in his Inaugural Address...
Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence.
Hmmmmmmmm....sounds kind of like Washington was asking for God's help. At least, that's how it sounded to me. And that's how it would sound to just about anyone, unless the person doesn't WANT Washington to believe in God.
Oh, and did you catch that first sentence and its implication? In case, you didn't, read it again....slowly....
"Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe..."
Now, what does Washington mean by "first official act"? Is he JUST talking about his Inaugural Address? Or is he perhaps talking about the overall inaugural ceremony? Call it a stretch, but isn't the OATH of office at least PART of an incoming President's first official act?
And this leads me to my last point....
The Cynic's Guide to Oral Tradition
It's true that we have no DIRECT evidence (in terms of sworn eyewitness accounts and such) that George Washington actually said "so help me God" at the end of his oath. We DO have INDIRECT evidence of this -- not the least of which would be decades of generally accepted historical tradition.
Herein lies a concern....we have become so cynical in our review and examination of past events that we sometimes (especially in matters of religion, it would seem) DEMAND - that's right, DEMAND! - absolute, 100%, scientifically-verifiable PROOF of something, before we believe it.
If that's going to be our standard, what happens to history? In fact, what happens to oral history? I'll tell you what happens....it's gone!
Why apply this standard if it's not necessary? And, if you're GOING to apply it, then be consistent -- and apply it to every area and across the board! And watch what happens to the study of history as a result.
The bottom line here is that no one can 100% prove (one way or the other) whether George Washington said "so help me God" at the end of his presidential oath. But we DO know that there is a historical tradition (dating back to the 1800s) that says he did. And....we know that saying "so help me God" was customary in western traditions. And...most importantly...that the phrase characterizes Washington's attitude toward Providence and faith.
This isn't really about whether Washington said "so help me God." This is really about atheists, agnostics, and other like-minded activists bitterly wanting to drive God and any reference to God out of the public square. THAT is what this is about.
Thankfully, President-elect Barack Obama isn't playing ball with that agenda. He has put a stop to some of this foolishness for now, by formally asking the Supreme Court Chief Justice to add "so help me God" to the oath.