Leave God Out of the Presidential Oath

The Constitution is often deliberately vague and open to interpretation. But in the case of the presidential oath, it is explicit.  Washington did not say “so help me…

The Constitution is often deliberately vague and open to interpretation. But in the case of the presidential oath, it is explicit. 

Washington did not say “so help me God” when he took the oath. Nor did any other of the first twenty-six Presidents. 

The President-elect, it says, “shall take the following oath or affirmation: ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.’ ”

Period. That’s it. The popular addition “so help me God” is not there. It never was. And the nation’s first twenty-six Presidents did not say it. 

Neither should Joe Biden when he takes the oath of office on January 20.

In other contexts, adding words to the Constitution is considered an amendment. So why, after promising to preserve the Constitution, have so many Presidents immediately added words that are not part of the oath? Where did this presidential tradition come from? 

In my recent book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American, I set out to answer these questions. 

Omitting God from the oath, it turns out, was no accident. The Founders deliberated this language at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a deliberation that is mirrored in the first bill Congress passed under the Constitution and the first bill President George Washington signed into law. 

As originally drafted, that law proposed Congressional oaths with clauses reading “in the presence of Almighty God” and “So help me GOD.” Both were edited out by the lawmakers. 

The spoken words have been as deliberate as the written words. We know that Washington didn’t add the words to the oath. Edward Lengel, former editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington project, concluded, “any attempt to prove that Washington added the words ‘so help me God’ requires mental gymnastics of the sort that would do credit to the finest artist of the flying trapeze.”

Like so much U.S. mythology, including Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane, and the Headless Horseman, we owe this Washingtonian myth to Washington Irving.


In his book The Republican Court, Rufus Wilmot Griswold tells how Irving recalled watching Washington’s Inauguration as a six-year-old “from the corner of New Street and Wall Street.” You can stand on the corner of New and Wall streets today, as I did while writing The Founding Myth. The experiment is not perfect, since the current Federal Hall, with its iconic steps, was built in 1842. 

Washington took his oath on a balcony with no access from the street. But stand on that corner and peer through the streams of pedestrians to the tourists taking photos on the steps of Federal Hall. Try to hear what they are saying. Now imagine you’re a six-year-old swamped, waist high, in an “innumerable throng” straining to hear a notoriously soft-spoken man whisper those words, “so help me God,” and accurately recalling those words fifty years later. The claim is not much more believable than The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Washington did not say “so help me God” when he took the oath. Nor did any other of the first twenty-six Presidents. 

The first reliable, contemporaneous account of any President saying these words along with the oath comes nearly a century after the country’s founding, at Chester A. Arthur’s public Inauguration in 1881. Arthur was actually already President. He had taken the oath immediately after learning that President James Garfield had finally succumbed to an assassin’s bullet, following a lingering ten-week-long infection. 

For the second, public oath, Chief Justice Morrison Waite read the oath and Arthur didn’t repeat it verbatim, instead replying simply, “I will, so help me God.” We wouldn’t hear those words in a presidential oath for another twenty-eight years.

It wasn’t until 1909, 130 years after the nation’s founding, that these words were added to the oath. Chief Justice Melville Fuller added the phrase and William Howard Taft repeated it.

And it was not until 1917, with the United States on the brink of entering World War I, that the tradition really took hold. Like Arthur, Woodrow Wilson took two oaths, adding “so help me God” to the second, superfluous oath. He had taken the presidential oath the day before in a somewhat private ceremony and did not add the phrase, though he did add it in the public ceremony the next day. 

Up through Wilson’s private 1917 oath, the phrase was used twice in forty oaths. Beginning with Wilson’s public 1917 oath, it has been used in twenty-nine of the next thirty oaths. (Circumstances often force presidents to take the oath more than once.) In his poorly regarded biography of Washington in 1896, Wilson wrote that Washington “said ‘So help me God!’ in tones no man could mistake.” 

Every subsequent oath has been highly public. Even those sworn privately or without the pomp of a full Inauguration ceremony were recorded. Not coincidentally, every oath since, save Herbert Hoover’s in 1929, included the request for divine assistance. The public nature of the supplement suggests a desire to appear pious rather than actual piety.

The explicit language of our Constitution’s presidential oath was good enough for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—the oath that made every one of the first twenty-six men into Presidents. President-elect Joe Biden ought to heed the call from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to return to our secular roots and the oath as it is written.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.


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