One need not reach deep into the far reaches of political history to recall the controversy that erupted during the 2012 Democratic National Convention (DNC). There, delegates first voted to remove “God” from their platform and then, responding to voter outrage, quickly reversed themselves. Perhaps another vote is necessary, but this time it is not about a platform — instead, the venue is Congress itself.
According to The New York Times, the majority party leading the House of Representatives recently chose — this can be no accident — to remove the phrase, “so help me God,” from the end of the oath of office. That is, witnesses appearing before Congress now end the oath that they will bear truthful witness before the body without invoking anything higher than themselves or the politicians they face. Call it a “congressional pinky promise.”
“I think God belongs in religious institutions: In temple, in church, in cathedral, in mosque — but not in Congress,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) told the Times before claiming on behalf of the Divine, “God doesn’t want to be used.”
Ruling out that this was a fluke, Rep. Diane DeGette (D-CO) explained before the House Energy and Commerce Oversight Subcommittee she chairs: “This is the oath we use and that’s the oath we’re going to use today.” That was in response to Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) questioning whether the oath administered was “incorrect or incomplete.”
Not to be outdone, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) explained away the shortened oath by saying flatly, “We do not have religious tests.”
That’s rich. As I wrote earlier this year here at The Daily Wire, Mr. Nadler’s own party has a problematic history of asserting a religious test for office — albeit one that was, until recently, limited to the other side of Capitol Hill. And it has nothing to do with the oath of office, or oaths for congressional witnesses, in any event.
Indeed, according to historical tradition, it was none other than George Washington himself who appended the phrase “so help me God” to the end of his initial oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. In all likelihood, Washington’s use of the phrase was motivated less by bombast and more by a humble reflection upon the enormity of the office to which he was ascending. Though “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countryman,” even Washington knew the stakes of being the country’s first executive were high. Since then, most presidents have followed Washington's example.
According to the Clerk of the House’s Office of Art and Archives, the oath to be used in Congress, as mandated by Title 5, Section 3331 of the United States Code, is unchanged since 1966 and part of the official oath for non-presidential swearings-in since at least 1862. In other words, like “In God We Trust” and “God Bless America” and the Pledge of Allegiance’s “under God,” the phrase “so help me God” is part of our history and tradition.
But, it serves another purpose, as well.
Beyond history and tradition, acknowledging accountability to one beyond oneself or the men and women assembled on the dais of a congressional hearing room is important in our republican form of government. Lawmakers who shun the phrase implicitly reject a higher authority. Stated positively, the use of the phrase “so help me God” acknowledges that there is something to which each of us are accountable beyond ourselves and beyond government.
There is one who “governs the affairs of men,” as Benjamin Franklin once put it. He who so governs does so because, according to our Declaration of Independence, he is “their Creator,” the one who bestowed upon us “certain inalienable rights” according to the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God.” When we proudly reject these limitations upon our authority, we assert ourselves as an authority unto ourselves.
Whether this has been the intent of the DNC since at least 2012’s convention or not, we cannot be certain. Yet, in the leadership of the House of Representatives, they have now deliberately chosen to do away with the phrase George Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and so many others did not find problematic. And that should be to House leadership's great shame.
At a minimum, ending the use of “so help me God” as a part of an oath administered by Congress subtly erases a small, but no less important, part of history. At worst, it further entrenches efforts to secularize anything beyond the four walls of a house of worship, shaming those who take Divine accountability seriously.