On February 28, 2019, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) was swearing in witnesses before a House Judiciary Subcommittee.
Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) made a point of parliamentary inquiry: “I think we left out ‘so help me God.’”
Cohen replied: “We did.”
Johnson asked “Can we have the witnesses do it again for the record?”
Cohen responded: “No,” then added: “If they want to do it, but some of them don’t want to do it, and I don’t think it’s necessary, and I don’t like to assert my will over other people.”
“Well it goes back to our founding history, it’s been part of our tradition for more than two centuries and I don’t know that we should abandon it now.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) interrupted:
"If any witness objects he should not be asked to identify himself. We do not have religious tests for office or for anything else … and we should let it go with that.“
Cohen then moved on.
That was it.
Over two hundred years of precedent of witnesses ending their oath with the phrase "so help me God” abruptly discarded.
Why did the founders include “So Help Me God” in the oath?
Greek philosopher Plato explained that human nature was such, that if a person could escape accountability, they would act unjustly, with selfish immorality.
Plato wrote in The Republic, 380 BC:
“According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia;
there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock.
Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels … looking in saw a dead body of stature … having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended …”
“Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king;
into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present.
He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result–when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.
Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court;
whereas soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.”
“No man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice.
No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.
And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.
For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right …”
Plato concluded that it would be illogical for a person with Gyges’ ring not to yield to the temptation:
“If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot.”
Only the belief in God–an eternal, invisible, just God–and that one is personally accountable to Him in the next life, could someone resist the temptation of the ring of Gyges.
William Linn, unanimously elected the first U.S. House Chaplain, stated May 1, 1789:
“Let my neighbor once persuade himself that there is no God, and he will soon pick my pocket, and break not only my leg but my neck.
If there be no God, there is no law, no future account; government then is the ordinance of man only, and we cannot be subject for conscience sake.”
The tradition in America has been for oaths to end with “So Help Me God.”
The military’s oath of enlistment ended with “So Help Me God.”
The commissioned officers’ oath ended with “So Help Me God.”
President’s oath of office ended with “So Help Me God.”
Congressmen and Senators’ oath ended with “So Help Me God.”
Witnesses in Court swore to tell the truth, “So Help Me God.”
Even an oath proposed by Lincoln for individuals wanting to be U.S. citizens ended with “So Help Me God.”
Lincoln announced his plan, DECEMBER 8, 1863, to let back into the Union those who had been in the Confederacy:
“Whereas it is now desired by some persons heretofore engaged in said rebellion to resume their allegiance to the United States …
Therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States … make known to all persons who have … participated in the existing rebellion …
that a full pardon is hereby granted … with restoration of all rights of property … upon the condition that every such person shall take and subscribe an oath … to wit:
"I, ______, do solemnly swear, in the presence of ALMIGHTY GOD, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the States thereunder,
and that I will in like manner abide by and faithfully support all acts of Congress passed during the existing rebellion with reference to slaves …
and that I will in like manner abide by and faithfully support all proclamations of the President made during the existing rebellion having reference to slaves …
so help me God.”
A situation was faced by Justice Samuel Chase, who was Chief Justice of Maryland’s Supreme Court in 1791, and then appointed by George Washington to be a Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, 1796-1811.
In 1799, a dispute arose over whether an Irish immigrant named Thomas M'Creery had in fact become a naturalized U.S. citizen and thereby able to leave an estate to a relative in Ireland.
The court decided in M'Creery’s favor based on a certificate executed before Justice Samuel Chase, which stated:
“I, Samuel Chase, Chief Judge of the State of Maryland, do hereby certify all whom it may concern,
that … personally appeared before me Thomas M'Creery, and did repeat and subscribe a declaration of his belief in the Christian Religion, and take the oath required … entitled, An Act for Naturalization.”
The purpose of an oath is to call a Higher Power to hold you accountable to perform what you promised.
It is a fearful understanding that you are inviting divine judgement upon yourself if you lie or break your promise.
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary gave the definition:
“OATH: A solemn affirmation or declaration, made with an appeal to God for the truth of what is affirmed.
The appeal to God in an oath implies that the person imprecates (invokes) His vengeance and renounces His favor if the declaration is false,
or if the declaration is a promise, the person invokes the vengeance of God if he should fail to fulfill it.”
An example of an oath is in Genesis 31:49-53, taken between Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban:
“… for he said, The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another. If thou shalt afflict my daughters, or if thou shalt take other wives beside my daughters, no man is with us; see, God is witness betwixt me and thee …
Behold this heap … this pillar, which I have cast betwixt me and thee …
I will not pass over this heap to thee, and that thou shalt not pass over this heap and this pillar unto me, for harm. The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us. ”
An unorthodox view of taking an oath was mentioned by Bill Clinton at the National Prayer Breakfast, February 4, 1993:
“Just two weeks and a day ago, I took the oath of office as President.
You know the last four words, for those who choose to say it in this way, are ‘so help me God’ …
Deep down inside I wanted to say it the way I was thinking it, which was, ‘So, - help me, God.’”
Judicial courts thought oaths would lose their effectiveness if the public at large lost the fear of the God, as He gave the commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”
New York Supreme Court Chief Justice Chancellor Kent noted in People v. Ruggles, 1811, that irreverence weakened the effectiveness of oaths:
“Christianity was parcel of the law, and to cast contumelious (insulting) reproaches upon it, tended to weaken the foundation of moral obligation, and the efficacy (effectiveness) of oaths.”
George Washington warned of this in his Farewell Address, 1796:
“Let it simply be asked where is the security for prosperity, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in the Courts of Justice?”
In August of 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville observed a court case:
“While I was in America, a witness, who happened to be called at the assizes of the county of Chester (state of New York), declared that he did not believe in the existence of God or in the immortality of the soul.
The judge refused to admit his evidence, on the ground that the witness had destroyed beforehand all confidence of the court in what he was about to say. The newspapers related the fact without any further comment …”
De Tocqueville continued:
“The New York Spectator of August 23d, 1831, relates the fact in the following terms:
‘The court of common pleas of Chester county (New York), a few days since rejected a witness who declared his disbelief in the existence of God.
The presiding judge remarked, that he had not before been aware that there was a man living who did not believe in the existence of God;
that this belief constituted the sanction (validity) of all testimony in a court of justice:
and that he knew of no case in a Christian country, where a witness had been permitted to testify without such belief.’”
President Dwight Eisenhower addressed the American Legion Back-to-God Program, February 20, 1955:
“Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first — the most basic — expression of Americanism.”
Oaths to hold office had similar acknowledgments.
The Constitution of Pennsylvania, 1776, signed by Ben Franklin, stated in chapter 2, section 10:
“Each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz:
‘I do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the Universe, the Rewarder of the good and Punisher of the wicked, and I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine Inspiration.’”
The Constitution of South Carolina, 1778, article 12, stated:
“Every … person, who acknowledges the being of a God, and believes in the future state of rewards and punishments … (is eligible to vote).”
The Constitution of South Carolina, 1790, article 38, stated:
“That all persons and religious societies, who acknowledge that there is one God, and a future state of rewards and punishments, and that God is publicly to be worshiped, shall be freely tolerated.”
The Constitution of Mississippi, 1817, stated:
“No person who denies the being of God or a future state of rewards and punishments shall hold any office in the civil department of the State.”
The Constitution of Maryland, 1851, required office holders make:
“A declaration of belief in the Christian religion; and if the party shall profess to be a Jew the declaration shall be of his belief in a future state of rewards and punishments.”
In 1864, the Constitution of Maryland, required office holders to make:
“A declaration of belief in the Christian religion, or of the existence of God, and in a future state of rewards and punishments.”
The Constitution of Tennessee, 1870, article IX, Section 2, stated:
“No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this State.”
Justice James Iredell, nominated by George Washington to the Supreme Court, defined an oath as 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.”
Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court stated in Commonwealth v. Wolf (3 Serg. & R. 48, 50, 1817:
“Laws cannot be administered in any civilized government unless the people are taught to revere the sanctity of an oath, and look to a future state of rewards and punishments for the deeds of this life.”
It was understood that persons in positions of power would have opportunities to do corrupt deep-state backroom deals for their own benefit.
But if that person believed that
– God was watching;
– that He wanted them to be just and honest; and
– that He would hold them accountable in the future;
then that person would hesitate doing wrong, thinking “even if I get away with this my whole life, I will still be accountable to God in the next.”
This is what is called “having a conscience.”
But if that person did not believe in God and in a future state of rewards and punishments, when presented with the same temptation — with no ultimate accountability — they would yield to it.
In fact, if there is no God and this life is all there is, a person, according to Plato, would be an idiot not to.
John Adams wrote again to Judge F.A. Van de Kemp, December 27, 1816:
“Let it once be revealed or demonstrated that there is no future state, and my advice to every man, woman, and child, would be, as our existence would be in our own power, to take opium.
For, I am certain there is nothing in this world worth living for but hope, and every hope will fail us, if the last hope, that of a future state, is extinguished.”
Democrat Presidential Candidate William Jennings Bryan reasoned, September 17, 1913:
“There is a powerful restraining influence in the belief that an all-seeing eye scrutinizes every thought and word and act of the individual.”
President Reagan stated in 1984:
“Without God there is no virtue because there is no prompting of the conscience.”
Sir William Blackstone, one of the most quoted authors by America’s founders, wrote in Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1765-1770:
“The belief of a future state of rewards and punishments, the entertaining just ideas of the main attributes of the Supreme Being,
and a firm persuasion that He superintends and will finally compensate every action in human life (all which are revealed in the doctrines of our Savior, Christ),
these are the grand foundations of all judicial oaths, which call God to witness the truth of those facts which perhaps may be only known to Him and the party attesting.”
Signer of the Declaration John Witherspoon wrote:
“An oath … implies a belief in God … and indeed is an act of worship …
In vows, there is no party but God and the person himself who makes the vow.”
The Gospel is:
God is just, and therefore must judge every sin;
God is love, and He, Himself, provided the Lamb to take the punishment for our sins.
Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul admonished in his letter to the Philippines, 2:12:
"Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear.“ (NLT)
This was the view of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who, when asked what was the greatest thought that ever passed through his mind, replied:
"My accountability to God.”
Benjamin Franklin wrote to Yale President Ezra Stiles, March 9, 1790:
“The soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its conduct in this.”
Franklin also wrote:
“That there is one God, Father of the Universe … That He loves such of His creatures as love and do good to others:
and will reward them either in this world or hereafter,
That men’s minds do not die with their bodies, but are made more happy or miserable after this life according to their actions.”
John Adams wrote to Judge F.A. Van der Kemp, January 13, 1815:
“My religion is founded on the love of God and my neighbor; in the hope of pardon for my offenses; upon contrition …
In the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can, to the creation, of which I am but an infinitesimal part.
I believe, too, in a future state of rewards and punishments.”
Some tried to extinguish “a future state.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is remembered for his line “God is dead.”
He exposed how hypocritical it was for atheists to claim to be “moral” (“Twilight of the Idols,” The Portable Nietzsche, ed., trans. Walter Kaufman, NY: Penguin Books, 1976, p. 515-6):
“When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet.
This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads.
Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.
Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it.
Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God has truth — it stands or falls with faith in God.”
Nietzsche criticized English atheist Mary Ann Evans, who used the pen name “George Elliot”:
“G. Elliot: They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality.
This is an English inconsistency: we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females à la Eliot.
In England one must rehabilitate oneself after ever little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there …
When the English actually believe that they know ‘intuitively’ what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion:
such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem.”
Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his book The Brothers Karamazov (1880), had the character Ivan Karamazov contend that if there is no God, “everything is permitted.”
In the draft of an article “Socialism and Christianity,” Dostoevsky criticized Europe for having
“rejected the single formula for their salvation that came from God and was proclaimed through revelation, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’
and replaced it with practical conclusions such as, ‘Chacun pour soi et Dieu pour tous’ (Every man for himself and God for all), or ‘scientific’ slogans like ‘the struggle for survival.’”
(Kenneth Lantz, The Dostoevsky Encyclopedia, 2004, Greenwood Publishing)
Rufus King, a signer of the U.S. Constitution, wrote in “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,” October 30, 1821:
“In our 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.”
John Adams warned October 11, 1798, in his address to the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division of Massachusetts’ Militia:
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.
Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net …
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Noah Webster wrote in A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary and Moral Subjects (New York, 1843):
“The virtue which is necessary to … render a government stable, is Christian virtue, which consists in the uniform practice of moral and religious duties, in conformity with the laws of both of God and man.”
Harvard Professor Clay Christensen, the Robert & Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, observed February 8, 2011:
“If you take away religion, you cannot hire enough police.”
John Adams wrote in a Proclamation of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer, March 6, 1799:
“No truth is more clearly taught in the Volume of Inspiration … than … acknowledgment of … a Supreme Being and of the accountableness of men to Him as the searcher of hearts and righteous distributor of rewards and punishments.”