White: Church and state, subtly split

The overt Christianity on display at the inauguration of President Barack Obama made more than a few people cringe.

Did a nominally secular ceremony that lasted less than an hour really need an invocation and a benediction? Did the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court really have to inquire “So help you God?” at the end of the constitutionally mandated (and deity-free) oath of office? Did our newly minted president really have to put his hand on a Bible before promising to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”?

As a matter of tradition, if not law, the answer is yes. John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, took the oath with his left hand on a book of constitutional law, but his symbolic act of secularism remains an aberration almost two centuries later; Theodore Roosevelt is the only modern president to refuse a Bible at his inaugural ceremony.

“So help me God” as a quasi-official part of the inaugural oath has a similarly long history. George Washington supposedly added the words unprompted, but in audio recordings from the 20th century the person administering the oath says “so help me God” after the affirmation.

Chief Justice John Roberts became the first to phrase the end of the oath as a question — “So help you God?” instead of “So help me God” — but I’m not willing to claim that a minor change in verbiage represents the latest assault on our ever-eroding barrier between church and state. I’ll leave such pursuits to atheist and serial lawsuit filer Michael Newdow, whose quixotic attempts to abolish God from the public sphere, however well-intentioned, do little more than provide easy fodder for Bill O’Reilly and his ilk.

Indeed, Barack Obama’s inauguration offered plenty to those of us hoping that his presidency ushers in an era of secularism and religious pluralism.

The mention of “nonbelievers” alongside “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus” in Obama’s inaugural speech has already garnered ample praise from irreligious types in the media and the academy. His promise to “restore science to its rightful place” strikes a similarly sweet-sounding note to Americans — and doubtless some foreigners as well — disillusioned with the Bush administration’s seeming preference for religious dogma over scientific insights when making policy decisions on issues like climate change and bioethics.

Even the Bible on which Obama took the oath of office presents an important deviation from the story of “America the Christian nation” so favored by the evangelical right. The Bible was used at Lincoln’s first swearing-in and has since become part of the permanent collection at the Library of Congress. Obama became only the second president to take the oath of office on that Bible.

To the extent that any religious tome can assume a secular significance, the Lincoln Bible should be seen as an artifact of American history. Obama selected it not for its contents — which, unsurprisingly, are identical to those of every other Bible — but for its place in America’s historical narrative. Ever the constitutional lawyer, Obama chose for his swearing-in a document first used by the man whose oath of fidelity to the Constitution was tested by civil war and whose memory inspired subsequent leaders to amend the Constitution in favor of equality and justice.

Like every American president of the past and for the foreseeable future, Obama took great pains to establish his Christian bona fides. Atheism and agnosticism remain barriers to supreme executive power, even in the age of Obama. But our new president has at least shown that his Christian faith is largely private. More important, he has deliberately cultivated the public image of a president faithful to the American ideal. By taking his oath of office on the Lincoln Bible, Obama made a symbolic gesture of fidelity to the Constitution and paid respectful homage to the historical figure who defended it most faithfully.

The explicitly Christian prayers bracketing the inauguration ceremony stand as a reminder that the separation between church and state remains a distant ideal. But Obama’s own actions demonstrate a refreshing fidelity to our shared history and carry the promise that his time in office will be marked by a restoration of religion to a primarily private role.

Xan White is a senior in

Pierson College.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Let me urge thoughtfulness on a couple of points on what is an otherwise thoughtful commentary. First, you indicate that denial of climate change has some kind of religious basis. As a professional theologian and signer of the "Evangelical Climate Initiative," I am unaware of any such religious basis for the denial. Secondly, your closing paragraph does not articulate a separation of church and state, but rather a banishment of religion from the public square, something neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights authorizes. I won't stereotype you (i.e. being of one "ilk" or another), but would suggest that you nuance some of the popular anti-Christian lore rather than parroting stereotypes which is so easy to do when we don't move outside our own tribes.

  • Barb

    Michael G for President in 2012!

  • Anonymous

    In his eagerness to profess the blessings of the separation between church and state - the "distant ideal" that the above comment wisely points out is no where called for in the Constitution or Bill of Rights - Mr. White has confused two distinct concepts and ignored his own facts.

    First, he refers to the hope that the Obama presidency will usher in an "era of secularism and religious pluralism". Secularism and religious pluralism are not the same idea and work out very differently in practice. One ideology says that everyone has the right to practice their own beliefs (see the Establishment/Free Exercise clauses of our own Constitution, as well as Richard Neuhaus's "The Naked Public Square"), while the other says everyone is equal because no one can practice their beliefs (see France).

    The problem with this latter policy of secularism, in my view, is that it actually privileges one point of view over others under the guise of fairness. Since Mr. White is glad to have "non-believers" mentioned alongside believers as a group of people free to express their views and values, he should defend the ability of people of other faiths to express their viewpoints as well. If you believe atheists and agnostics are currently belittled under a Christian tyranny over the public sphere, consider the secular tyranny over the public sphere you propose as a "fair" alternative.

    Granted, as Mr. White points out, there is a de facto privileging of religious viewpoints in government, but that's because we live in a representative, democratic country in which a majority of people believe in something or other that is close enough to a higher power to go by the name of God. The inaugural prayer is an important tradition to these people, and I think the more important point to make about this ceremony was the lack of religious pluralism on stage (don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Rick Warren, but in the past there have been priests of other ilks and rabbis onstage as well).

    To say that atheists are oppressed, however, goes too far, when you think of what Mr. White is proposing to do to the faithful in reverse: As we have it, whoever wants to can express their belief in God, and Mr. White can express his belief in there not being a God, and both views are respected and given their free expression. Yet Mr. White wishes Michael Newdow well in his attempts to abolish God from the public sphere, ushering in an age in which religious people cannot express what they believe because of its offensiveness. This sounds to me like the censorship of Fahrenheit 451, and I can't fathom why a person would take offense or otherwise feel the need to suppress another person's expression of faith (especially when it's preaching loving others, showing mercy to your enemies and charity to the needy). Perhaps Mr. White could clarify what he believes is so good about the suppression of religion/removal of God from the public sphere, assuming he means not just government practices but also the rest of America's public life?

    As for the Lincoln Bible as a symbol of Obama choosing history instead of religion, well, I don't know where to start. Maybe Mr. White should start by reading some of Lincoln's speeches and reconsider whether the "America the Christian nation" notion is really so far removed from the truth of our religious and cultural heritage. As far as moving forward toward an even more pluralist future, it's important to remember that religious pluralism (not secularism) was the guarantor of liberty in the past.

    Finally, a quick note before I'm late for class: disagreeing with someone is not the same thing as disrespecting them. I don't see a friend's profession of a different faith, be it another religion or atheism, as an attack on me, but nothing irks me more than people saying other people shouldn't express their own beliefs (with the caveats against language that incites violence, etc. - that's a whole other issue). As much as it upset me, I appreciated Mr. White's article and respect him as an author, and I hope he will respond in kind to my points.

  • E

    As I learned from this wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123215076308292139.html), while inauguration ceremonies have never been thoroughly secular, they have become, in recent years, less and less pluralistic. It would have been nice if Obama had tried to embrace a wider swath of Americans with the benediction.

  • Ray Soller

    Actually, several Presidents are not known to have sworn their oath of office on a Bible:

    1) There is no mention of George Washington having used a Bible at his second inauguration. (He certainly did not mention God/Almighty/Providence in his Inaugural Address - the only President not to do so.)
    2) Similarly, there's no known report for John Adams, or other early Presidents having used a Bible.
    3) As stated, John Quincy Adams swore on a book of the law.
    4) Reports differ whether Franklin Pierce affirmed his oath on a Bible or not, or even, possibly, a book of the law.
    5) As stated, Theodore Roosevelt did not place his hand on a Bible.
    6) Calvin Coolidge while at his father's house in Vermont did not place his hand on the Bible, which was nearby.
    7) Rutherford B. Hayes had no Bible at his private ceremony.
    8) JFK did not place his hand on the Bible, which rested on the podium.
    9) Johnson placed his hand on a Catholic missal (Bible not available).

    A rigorous examination through newspaper archives shows that from the time of George Washington through to the time of Herbert Hoover nearly all presidents recited their presidential oath just as prescribed by the constitution. It is only since FDR's first inauguration in 1933 that all presidents have added "So help me God" after first being asked to do so by a federal judge.

    According to Glenn D. Kittler, "Hail to the Chief," 1965, "When [on March 5, 1917] the oath was finished, the Chief Justice [Edward D. White] added: 'So help you God.'
    "Slowly and solemnly, [Woodrow] Wilson said: 'So help me God.' He took the Bible in both hands and kissed it, his lips toughing the words: 'The Lord is our refuge; a very presence in the time of trouble.'"

  • Joseph E Cassles

    Here are a few pertinent words from the authors of our constitution.

    Authors of the US Constitution

    All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
    Thomas Paine
    In no instance have… the churches been guardians of the liberties of the people.
    James Madison
    Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
    Thomas Jefferson
    There are matters in the Bible, said to be done by the express commandment of God, that are shocking to humanity and to every idea we have of moral justice.
    Thomas Paine
    Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Government.
    James Madison
    I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.
    Thomas Jefferson
    I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.
    Thomas Jefferson
    Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect.
    James Madison
    Is it not a species of blasphemy to call the New Testament revealed religion, when we see in it such contradictions and absurdities.
    Thomas Paine
    I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.
    Thomas Jefferson
    It is not a God, just and good, but a devil, under the name of God, that the Bible describes.
    Thomas Paine
    The number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state.
    James Madison
    The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.
    James Madison
    Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst.
    Thomas Paine
    It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God.
    Thomas Jefferson
    One good schoolmaster is of more use than a hundred priests.
    Thomas Paine
    It is in our lives and not our words that our religion must be read.
    Thomas Jefferson
    In every country and every age, the priest had been hostile to Liberty.
    Thomas Jefferson
    Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.
    Thomas Paine
    Power always thinks… that it is doing God's service when it is violating all his laws.
    John Adams
    That God cannot lie, is no advantage to your argument, because it is no proof that priests can not, or that the Bible does not.
    Thomas Paine

    Authors of the US Constitution

    All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
    Thomas Paine
    In no instance have… the churches been guardians of the liberties of the people.
    James Madison
    Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
    Thomas Jefferson
    There are matters in the Bible, said to be done by the express commandment of God, that are shocking to humanity and to every idea we have of moral justice.
    Thomas Paine
    Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Government.
    James Madison
    I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.
    Thomas Jefferson
    I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.
    Thomas Jefferson
    Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect.
    James Madison
    Is it not a species of blasphemy to call the New Testament revealed religion, when we see in it such contradictions and absurdities.
    Thomas Paine
    I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.
    Thomas Jefferson
    It is not a God, just and good, but a devil, under the name of God, that the Bible describes.
    Thomas Paine
    The number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state.
    James Madison
    The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.
    James Madison
    Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst.
    Thomas Paine
    It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God.
    Thomas Jefferson
    One good schoolmaster is of more use than a hundred priests.
    Thomas Paine
    It is in our lives and not our words that our religion must be read.
    Thomas Jefferson
    In every country and every age, the priest had been hostile to Liberty.
    Thomas Jefferson
    Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.
    Thomas Paine
    Power always thinks… that it is doing God's service when it is violating all his laws.
    John Adams
    That God cannot lie, is no advantage to your argument, because it is no proof that priests can not, or that the Bible does not.
    Thomas Paine

  • anon

    Thomas Paine was actually not involved in writing the Constitution.