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What Has Happened to the Oath?

The fact that at one time atheists were not allowed to take an oath and testify in court should tell us that we live in a very different world than existed at the time the Constitution was ratified. Wholesale changes in our nation's moral character and our nation's legal system have been made, and these changes are the result either of wholesale ignorance or wholesale deceit on the part of our nation's leaders. Probably both.

We are not even aware of some of these changes ("Ignorance is bliss"). But God is.

Would you believe that when you take an oath in court which ends with "so help me, God," that - according to the courts - you are publicly professing that you are not a Christian? I know that sounds outrageous, but I think you'll agree that it is the courts that are outrageous. Here's the evidence:

Although Torcaso v. Watkins prohibited the states from requiring belief in God in order to take an oath, references to "God" still remain in many oaths ("so help me, God"), as well as the Pledge of Allegiance ("one nation, under God"), and in the "National Motto" ("In God We Trust").

Unless you're Rip van Winkle, you know that there has been a struggle in this century between Christians and Secular Humanists over whose religion will dominate American law and culture.[1] Naturally, the Humanists have challenged these "God-words" in courts as an "establishment" of Christianity.[2] They had good grounds for doing so. As we will see, the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution forbids the Government from giving Christian law any preference over atheistic law. Probably some of the most famous words in recent First Amendment jurisprudence are those of the Court in Everson v. Board of Education:

The "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can . . . pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person . . . to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs. . . .[3]

I exaggerate only a tiny bit when I say that these words are a sacred doxology in the Supreme Court Prayer Book. They are recited often. They are foundational dogmas. So you can see why atheists haven't hesitated to sue when they are required to say "so help me, God" in court, or when Congress says our national motto is "In God We Trust."

Suspicious "conspiracy-theorist" Christians (such as I) would expect courts to say, "Yes, that is an unconstitutional favoring of religion over unbelief."[4] But the courts have refused to declare such ubiquitous references to "God" unconstitutional, even though such references clearly "favor religion" and make atheists feel "left out."[5] Surprisingly, the atheists in these cases usually "lose." And many Christians are relieved: "See, we live in a Christian nation!"

Please don't kill the messenger: I'm here to tell you that the Christians actually lost, and lost big.

The modern Supreme Court won't admit it, but they are trying to establish the religion of Secular Humanism. Adherents of that religion are offended when they are required to acknowledge God. So the Court says that government cannot favor religion [especially Christianity] over unbelief, and cannot force a profession of belief: that's the basic rule, according to the Supreme Court. Logically, the Court should say that "so help me, God" is "unconstitutional." But the courts know that Christians would go bananas if they read in the morning paper that "so help me, God" had been ruled "unconstitutional." So what did the secular courts do? The courts held that these "God-words" are "secular." That's correct: words like "In God We Trust" are "purely patriotic," not religious. The U.S. Supreme Court (which itself opens each session with the words, "God save the United States and this honorable Court") has called them occasions of "ceremonial deism." Other courts have said the words have "no theological . . . impact."[6] In other words, a law requiring someone to say "so help me, God" at the end of an oath is not unconstitutional because the words have nothing to do with religion, ipse dixit.

Did you know that "so help me, God" was not a reference to the God of the Bible? Or of any religion, for that matter?

Unfortunately, it gets worse.[7]

An earlier Supreme Court, acting in a day in which Christianity was more dominant, defined "deism" as unbelief. The U.S. Supreme Court in the 1844 case of Vidal v. Girard's Executors,[8] challenging the construction of an apparently secular school, speaking through Justice Joseph Story, ruled that any plan to build a non-Christian school which would not teach the Bible and would instead propagate "Deism, or any other form of infidelity" would be impermissible. Most of us Christians can't understand what the Court is saying. "Infidelity" comes from the Latin, fide, meaning "faith." The word signifies "unbelief." Teach "Deism" in the public schools?! "Such a case is not to be presumed to exist in a Christian country . . ." the Court said.[9]

Of course, nobody really pays any attention to the law, but legally speaking, these two pronouncements by the Court together declare that those who take a non-"test" oath declare themselves to be unbelievers. Once upon a time, the Supreme Court upheld the Bible against "Deism." Now the Court prohibits religion and requires ceremonial "infidelity."

I suspect that most Americans would be surprised to learn that the courts have said that "In God We Trust" and "so help me, God" are not religious references to God, but simply a "secular" and "patriotic" way of getting us to trust the government.

Taking an oath which is "secular" or using God's Name when it is admitted that the phrase is devoid of "theological . . . impact" is a violation of the Third Commandment, which forbids taking the Lord's Name in vain.[10]

If a court expressly required you to take an oath in which you professed yourself to be an "unbeliever," would you so swear? Although most people who use the Name of the Lord in court may in fact be Deists, I refuse to be. I'm hoping that you too refuse to be a Deist - or even a "ceremonial deist." I hope you'll join me in demanding an opportunity to take a Christian "test oath."

I cannot take a secular oath. To do so is to declare publicly that my words are not made in the Presence of God. It is to swear in the name of some other god than the God of the Bible. (And if you want to "psychoanalyze" me, it is to let the U.S. Supreme Court "get away with it.") I can only take an explicitly Trinitarian "test oath."

Another Parable . . .

Sometime in the 1960's

When I was about 8 years old, I formed a "club" with a few other friends. Our hideout was next to a "creek" that ran in back of my house. Perhaps I was somewhat precocious, but I insisted that our club require a Theocratic "test oath" for admission. Each member would have to take an oath to uphold the club rules, and that oath would have to follow explicit Biblical requirements that it be made in the Name of God. As a model for our club, I chose the oath required by the Delaware Constitution of 1776, which is on the first page of this booklet.

Well, one of our mutual friends, Sandy, wanted to join the club. That was OK, 'cuz Sandy was a great guy. We had a lot of good times together. But he flinched at the oath. You see, Sandy was Jewish. I had never even heard the word "anti-Semitic," and I certainly wasn't. But I was a no-compromise zealot. Sandy said he couldn't take an oath in the Name of God; my God, that is: Jesus. The other guys said we should forget Delaware's oath, and forget the Biblical stuff, and just have an "ordinary" oath like all the other clubs; an oath which Sandy could take. I said this country became great because we honored God and obeyed His Word, and if we wanted to be a great club, we had to have a Christian oath.

The other guys pointed out that several years earlier the U.S. Supreme Court had said it was "unconstitutional" to require Christian oaths. I said too bad; the Bible requires me to swear in the Name of God. Sandy said he could not swear in the Name of my God. So, by a 3-1 vote, a "generic" oath was required. As a result, I could not join my own club, because I would not be swearing in the Name of the True God, but would be swearing in the name of Sandy's god, or in the name of a "generic" god, or just some non-entity.[11] I vowed to become an attorney and fight the U.S. Supreme Court. Not that I wanted to keep Sandy out of the club; that made me sad. But I wanted to take a Biblical oath.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the words of the 1776 Delaware oath are now "abhorrent to our tradition."[12] The Court has held that anyone who believes these words cannot be permitted to swear their "support" for the Constitution, even if they want to.[13]

I know that still sounds like an unwarranted interpretation of American Constitutional Law, so let me try to reconstruct it step by step. Having considered the nature of the American Theocracy as the Puritans constructed it, we must examine the now-secular oath (next).

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1. See generally, F. Schaeffer, A Time for Anger, (1982), C. Thomas, Book Burning, (1983), J. Hunter, Culture Wars (1991), M. Medved, Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values, (1992), P. Schenck, The Extermination of Christianity, (1993).  [Return to text]

2. Recall the First Amendment's requirement that "Congress . . . make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . ." Some have thought that this Amendment applied only to the Federal Government, not to the states; many have debated the exact meaning of "an establishment" (national religion? aid to parochial schools OK? etc.); few ever dreamed that the Framers intended this Amendment to remove "so help me, God" from oaths. The Modernist bias is virulent: One Supreme Court Justice, citing a few dictionaries, has even claimed that "Respecting" means respectfully, "that is, 'reverence,' 'good will,' 'regard'" (as in "Respect your elders!"). He concludes that "the Establishment Clause, in banning laws that concern religion, especially prohibits those that pay homage to religion." County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 649, 109 S.Ct. 3086, 106 L.Ed.2d 472, 531 (1989) (Stevens, J.) Is he saying the Framers approved only of laws which show disrespect for Christianity?! Is this mere historical ignorance, or is it desperate hostility? It is an argument to be expected in a Jr. High debate class from an inexperienced but prejudiced student who had read the Amendment for the very first time moments before the start of the debate: "See? We can't show any respect for religion!" But see below, text at note 159 (remarks of Justice Joseph Story), and text at note 39 (Franklin's statement that Christianity should be "not only tolerated, but respected and practised.").  [Return to text]

3. Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Tp., 330 U.S. 1, 15-16, 67 S.Ct. 504, 511, 91 L.Ed. 711 (1947).  [Return to text]

4. See the dissenting opinions in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, 103 S.Ct. 3330, 77 L.Ed.2d 1019 (1983).  [Return to text]

5. County of Allegheny v. ACLU 492 US 573, 674, 106 L Ed 2d 472, 547 (Justice Kennedy, with whom The Chief Justice, Justice White, and Justice Scalia join, concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.) Ibid., 492 US 573, 670, 106 L Ed 2d 472, 545, 109 S Ct 3086 (1989) (Justice O'Connor, with whom Justice Brennan and Justice Stevens join as to Part II, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.)("outsiders").  [Return to text]

6. County of Allegheny v ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 602-603, 109 S.Ct. 3086, 106 L.Ed.2d 472, 500-501 (1989); Madalyn Murray O'Hair v. Blumenthal, 462 F.Supp 19 (W.D. Tex., 1978); Aranow v. U.S., 432 F.2d 242 (9th Cir. 1970).

Notre Dame Prof. of Law Charles E. Rice writes,

The Court requires government at all levels to maintain a neutrality between theism and non-theism which results, in practical effect, in a governmental preference of the religion of agnostic secularism. Justice Brennan argued, in his concurrence in the 1963 school prayer case, that the words "under God" could still be kept in the Pledge of Allegiance only because they "no longer have a religious purpose or meaning." Instead, according to Brennan they "may merely recognize the historical fact that our Nation was believed to have been founded 'under God." [Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 304, (1963).] This false neutrality would logically prevent an assertion by any government official, whether President or school teacher, that the Declaration of Independence—the first of the Organic Laws of the United States printed at the head of the United States Code—is in fact true when it asserts that men are endowed "by their Creator" with certain unalienable rights and when it affirms "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," a "Supreme Judge of the world" and "Divine Providence."

"The Constitution: Guarantor of Religion," in Derailing the Constitution: The Undermining of American Federalism, edited by Edward B. McLean, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1997, pp. 155-56.

Brennan later retracted such magnanimous concessions:

[S]ome 20 years ago, in a concurring opinion in one of the cases striking down official prayer and ceremonial Bible reading in the public schools, I came very close to endorsing essentially the result reached by the Court today.2 Nevertheless, after much reflection, I have come to the conclusion that I was wrong then and that the Court is wrong today.

MARSH v. CHAMBERS, 463 U.S. 783, 796 (1983)  JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL joins, dissenting    [Return to text]

7. It gets worse because we Christians are products of our secular culture, and we just aren't sensitive to how radically anti-Biblical the courts are. The more we learn, "the worse it gets." If we had lived 200 years ago and were to be transported through time into the last decade of the 20th century, we would be appalled at a lot of things.  [Return to text]

8. Vidal v. Girard's Executor's, 43 U.S. 127, 11 L.Ed. 205 (1844).  [Return to text]

9. Ibid., 43 U.S. at 198, 11 L.Ed at 234. It's embarrassing to have to admit this, but at one time the Supreme Court may have been more Christian than we are! Must we not agree with the Vidal Court, that Deism is anti-Christian, a form of unbelief?  [Return to text]

10. Exodus 20:7 ("Thou shalt not take the Name of the LORD thy God in vain."); Matthew 23:16-22. ("Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it is ["ceremonial deism"]; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.'")  [Return to text]

11. "For all the gods of the peoples are non-entities, But the LORD made the heavens." Psalm 96:5  [Return to text]

12. Girouard v. U.S., 328 U.S. 61, 69, 66 S.Ct. 826, 829 (1946). See below, "Christian Theocracy: An Unconstitutional Religion," pp. 34-37.  [Return to text]

13. Summers.  [Return to text]