22 January 2009

Swear not at all: Obama, the Bible, and the second oath of office

Since some of the words were flubbed a bit the first time around, Obama took the oath of office a second time. This time without a bible.

Which is as it should be, for two reasons:

  1. The Bible is not required by the constitution. In fact, it would be unconstitutional for Chief Justice Roberts to insist, or even suggest, that Obama use a Bible in the ceremony. That would imply a religious test for office, which is disallowed by Article VI, section 3.

  2. A Christian who believes in the Bible shouldn't swear on one.

The Bible, of course, is worse than useless when it comes to consistent advice on morality. But the New Testament (to avoid confusion, ignore the Old Testament on this one) is pretty clear about one thing: Christians shouldn't swear. Not to God and not on the Bible or on anything else.

Here's what Jesus (supposedly) said about it:

But I say unto you, swear not at all; neither by heaven for it is God's throne; Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. Matthew 5:34-37

And the Book of James condemns swearing "above all things." I guess that would make it the worst possible sin.

But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation. James 5:12

It always seemed strange to me to swear on a book that is filled with lies.

I'm glad Obama got it right the second time around (except for the "So help me God" bullshit).


Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

The "let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay" verse actually got me out of jury duty back when I was a Christian. They asked me if I would swear, and I said no I would not swear, but that I would say yes. I'm sure they thought I was a kook, and I would have to agree that I was.

Dan Gilbert said...

Nicely written! I didn't know about those Bible versus until I read them here. That's just priceless. According to those versus, the president shouldn't be taking an oath of office in the first place. It's entirely un-Christian!

Michael said...

I am a fervent believer in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, but neither it, nor the religious test clause, is offended when a new President voluntarily appends the oath of office with "so help me God". The President is exercising his own religious freedom by referring to an external force -- his own religious beliefs -- in a demonstration of how seriously he takes his oath. Since the state does not require that he do so -- as evidenced by the Constitutionally prescribed text of the oath itself -- he is not being subjected to a religious test. The First Amendment case is even easier, because its Exercise Clause guarantees him the right to say "so help me God" if he so chooses.

Jonathan Bennett said...

Obama is surely too intelligent to believe in all that christian voodoo isn't he? And I guess he's also intelligent enough to realise that he has to pretend to "be of faith" in order to get anywhere in the semi-theocracy that is the modern US of A.

Uruk said...

Awesome post. I just had this argument with someone on Inauguration day. Vindication!! I really appreciate the information about Article Six. I knew people had used no text at all in the past and even a Koran, but I did not know about a specific article striking down religious tests.

And, I just wanna say that I've enjoy your posts so far. Also,when I deconverted from Christianity, the Skeptic's Annotated Bible was one of the first sources I started reading. Reading it was hard at first, but I just couldn't argue with it. Thanks for all of that work!

I Am said...

Steve, I like how you're able to find verses in the Bible to show how ridiculous some believers are. They claim to believe in the Bible, yet don't know or choose to ignore what's in it.

Michael, while I respect your opinion, that isn't the full story. The Chief Justice is the one who says "so help me God," and the president-elect is obviously expected to repeat it. This should not happen. If Obama threw it in "so help me God" or "Long Live Zeus!" afterwards for kicks on his own, you might arguably say it's his own free speech. But instead, Chief Justices are adding it on themselves and the incoming Presidents are now expected to say it. This is a religious test, and it's simply unconstitutional.

Jonathan, I'd like to believe he's just pandering, but if he was, I don't see why he'd pick the extremist Rick Warren to speak during the official inaugural festivities. Certainly there were kinder, gentler Christians out there he could have picked instead (and not just thrown one in at the last minute after some uproar against Warren).

Michael said...

I am, you're factually incorrect in your response to me. Obama wanted to say "So help me God" and told the Chief Justice, or perhaps his staff, before the inauguration. This fact is established by an affidavit filed by the defense in response to one of the lawsuits. While Roberts said "so help me God", he knew Obama wanted to say it. If a Chief Justice said "so help me God" to a president-elect who did not want to say it, that would be a different case, but that didn't happen here.

Anonymous said...

It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario. If he says it (which he did), a few people are up in arms about him pandering to the religious right. If he doesn't, the religious right would have been up in arms about how 'ungodly' he is to not swear in the name of God.

Since it's obvious the religious right has too much power right now, only an idiot would leave out the 'so help me God' when swearing in as the President. It's unfair, it's unconstitutional, but sometimes what is right gets smothered by necessity. I doubt the majority of people even realize what's so wrong about having 'so help me God' in an oath of office.

How many Presidents have said 'so help me God' in their swearing in ceremonies? It may now just be a convention that would cause too much pointless whining from the religious right (which whines VERY loudly) if left out.

I Am said...

Michael, whether or not Obama wanted him to say it is entirely irrelevant.

Roberts is acting as an agent of the state. There is no state religion. He has no business saying anything about God as long as he's carrying out his constitutional duties of administering the oath of office. Doing so serves as an establishment of state religion.

One thing that shows the words of the oath are deemed legally important is the fact that Roberts did a "take two" with Obama since he had gotten the words wrong. If all that mattered was what Obama thought, then nobody would have found it necessary for him to do the oath over. But instead, they recognized that to fulfill what was in the Constitution, Obama had to repeat the oath word-for-word.

If Roberts is going to mention anything about religion, there needs to be some indication that he's speaking personally and not as an agent of the state administering an oath. Saying "so help you God" immediately following the actual Constitutional oath while Obama's hand is still on the Bible and with no pause or comment in-between does not indicate that Roberts is speaking personally. In my opinion, that makes it unconstitutional, whether or not Obama is fine with it.

Michael said...

Whether Justice Roberts is acting as an agent of the state has some relevance as to whether he is violating the Establishment Clause, but it's not close to being decisive. A more important fact that you have omitted from your analysis is that President Obama told Justice Roberts he wanted the phrase "So help me God" appended at the end of the oath. So apparently he was not being coerced. The do-over had nothing to do with "so help me God" but with Justice Roberts's misplacing of the word "faithfully". Finally, your personal opinion is not a barometer of whether the phrase triggers the Establishment Clause.

I Am said...

Thank you Michael for allowing that Roberts' role acting as an agent for the State may have some relevance in the Establishment Clause.

The Establishment Clause does not mention coercion, so while coercion may be one way of violating it, I would think it shouldn't be the only way of violating it.

Theoretically, if every single American was Christian and wanted Christianity to be the official state religion, it would still be unconstitutional to establish it as such.

I clearly stated the reason I cited the example of the do-over. It showed the wording of the oath to be deemed important. If there is a doubt as to whether moving words around yields a Constitutionally-acceptable oath, an argument could be made that adding words to the oath may also not be acceptable.

Finally, I never said my personal opinion is the final word on the Establishment Clause. I'm not a Supreme Court Justice and have never studied law. I simply stated my opinion and clearly indicated that it was my opinion.

If it's unconstitutional to establish religion, and the Chief Justice asks the President (willingly or not) to swear by God, it would seem to be unconstitutional to me.

Lord forgive them said...

I had no idea that there were so many people in this country that refuse HIM. In the end, it doesn't matter if a person "believes" or not. He is and Judgement is coming. You can hurl insults if you want, but you will only prove my point.
God Bless the USA, because it sure does need Him now... more than ever!

Don said...

I'M with Lord frogive them!
You great well fed & supplied Americans can shoot from the sholder all day..kinda like counting the grains of sand on the beach, just mouthing to men cause they hear you and your rant.
Where God being above you says you will be judged for every idle word. Mat:12-36 Still loving his creation and vast in mercy looks for the mouth to speak good things about him. So evidence of the great falling away is upon us our country and the world. No fear mates, Fearing God is the beginning of wisdom you may just "get it" before you pass.