"So help me God" at swearing-in
ceremonies and in legal documents
Witnesses in North American court trials are sworn-in before testifying. They have
historically been asked to promise to tell the truth "so help me
God." This tradition has an ancient history, dating back to the late
18th century. 1
At the time, the non-Native population of the U.S. was almost entirely
Judeo-Christian and the vast majority of adults believed in a
personal God and feared the possibility of being
sentenced to an eternity in
Hell if they angered God. By invoking God in the
swearing-in ceremony, it was widely believed believed that witnesses would be
less likely to commit perjury because of fear of angering God. Then, and now,
many Americans feel that a person cannot be moral unless they have a belief in
the existence of God who monitors each human's activities closely and will
Belief in God has since become less common in North America; belief in a wrathful God who tortures people for all
eternity in Hell is becoming rare except among some religious conservatives. But the
swearing-in tradition continues. Some
state tax forms and other legal documents require the individual to swear
truthfulness as well, upon penalty of a fine or jail sentence. 2
The U.S. is generally regarded as the most religiously diverse country in the
world. As the percentage of persons who identify themselves as
decreases, and the percentage of Agnostics,
Atheists, those not associated with
a religious faith, etc. increases, there have been efforts to remove
references to the Judeo-Christian
God from court rooms, government offices,
public schools, etc. One of these
changes has been to remove state-sponsored prayer from the schoolroom, while
allowing students to pray on the school bus, around the flagpole, in school
corridors, in religious clubs, over meals, etc. Another has been to drop the "so help me God" phrase in courtrooms.
This has generated considerable distress among some devout people who interpret
these changes as attacks on their religious heritage and
religious freedoms. Finally, we have the case of a Missouri court that
allegedly makes "So help me God" optional.
A pious hoax:
In late 2004, an anonymous person
started to circulate an Email concerning a swearing-in ceremony at a courtroom in
Raytown, MO. Raytown has a population of about 30,000 and is near Kansas City and
Independence. A 2007-NOV version of the Email is:
|This is by a daughter of a murdered
couple in Raytown who had a Bible and Bookstore [sic] on 63rd street.
When I had to testify at the murder trial of my parents a week ago, I was
asked to raise my right hand. The bailiff started out; "Do you swear to tell
the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" I stood there and
waited but she said nothing. She said, "Do you?" I was so stunned, I blurted
out "What happened to 'so help me God'?" She came back with, "Do you?" I
replied yes, but I was perplexed.
Then the judge said "You can say that if
you want to." I stopped, raised my right hand, and finished with "So help me
God!" I told my son and daughter that when it came time for them to testify,
they should do the same.
It's no wonder we have so many problems
in this country. If I'd had my wits about me I'd have told them that taking
God out of the courtroom is only going to result in more criminals and
murderers. I don't know what can be done about it, but it's time for us to
step up and DO something.
NBC this morning had a poll on this question. They had the highest number of
responses that they have ever had for one of their polls, and the percentage
was the same as this: 86% to keep the words, 14% against. That is a pretty
'commanding' public response.
I was asked to send this [Email] on if I
agreed or delete if I didn't. Now it is your turn. It is said that 86% of
Americans believe in God. Therefore, I have a very hard time understanding
why there is such a mess about having "In God We Trust" on our money and
having God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Why is the world catering to this
In God We Trust
An earlier version of the Email was a little more assertive. Instead of criticizing the
"world catering to this 14%" the Email said: "Why don't we just tell
the 14% to Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!"
The Snopes.com website tracks actual hoaxes and stories that appear to be hoaxes.
They have a 2004-DEC version of the Email that is similar to the above, but
which ends at the "...it's time we stepped up and did something"
The Email appears to be based on an actual murder of John and Mildred Caylor, an elderly
couple who ran a conservative Christian bookstore in Raytown. However, the Email
was first circulated before the court case began. Also, the Caylors apparently did not have a
daughter. Thus the swearing-in events appear to be a work of fiction.
Apparently, this Email was actually written by the daughter
of Clifford and Benice Moody who were stabbed to death in 1996 in their home in
the Four Corners area of Polk County, FL.
What percentage of Americans believe & disbelieve in a personal God?
The 86%/14% values happen to be taken from the results of a Gallup Poll conducted during 2007-MAY.
Someone might have recently made the Email's data agree with the Gallup poll's
numbers. When the pollsters asked "Do you believe in God, or is it something
you're not sure about, or don't believe in?"
|86% said they believe in God; |
|8% said they were not sure about; |
|6% said they don't believe in God.|
However, during the same survey, American adults were asked: "Do
you believe in God, don't believe in God but believe in a
universal spirit, or don't believe in either?"
|78% said they believed in God; |
|14% said they believe in a universal spirit; |
|7% don't believe in either. |
Earlier, Baylor University conducted an interesting national poll about how
God is perceived by the public. They concluded that, among American adults who believed in God,
24.4% believed in what the pollsters called a "Type D" or Distant God. Their God exhibited low engagement with humans
and the rest of the world, exhibited little concern towards human sin, and had
little interest of punishing transgressors. The Deism religion
would be a good fit for their beliefs, although the vast majority would probably
have never heard of that religion. More details
Thys, only a relatively slim majority of Americans -- on the order of 60% --
believe in the type of God that the Email writer is referring to: a God that
exists, is active in the world, condemns perjury, and might take action to
punish a perjurer. It would seem that an accommodation to the wishes of a
substantial minority of the population would be desirable.
Majority rule vs. accommodation:
There are at least three different ways to handle the "So help me God"
|We can proceed with the will of the majority who would probably want to
retain the compulsory use of the phrase.|
|We can interpret the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as
prohibiting government promotion of religion, and simply drop the phrase.
Eliminating the phrase would also remove the requirement that Agnostics,
Atheists, and other commit perjury by acknowledging the existence of a deity
in which they do not believe.|
|We can attempt to accommodate people's conflicting views by finding
common ground -- some form of compromise.|
One method of accommodation would be the policy of the Raytown, MO court: to make
the phrase optional.
Humanists, other non-theists, some
Deists, etc. would not be forced to imply a
belief in the existence of a supreme being, which many would regard as a
form of lying.|
Jews and other theists could freely add the words "So help
me God" if they personally wish to follow tradition and make their belief in
This would result in a system where nobody is forced to say something that they feel uncomfortable with. This is
not a perfect solution, because there will still be some who would prefer that
the phrase be compulsory and other who would wish that it be prohibited.
Democracy does not necessarily mean that the majority should always rule.
That often leads to the tyranny of the majority in which various minorities are
oppressed. One of the functions of a constitution is to shield minorities from
the wishes of the majority.
|One example of this form of tyranny was the miscegenation laws that
existed in at least 41 U.S. states during the early 1960s. They prohibited
inter-racial marriages. These laws were preserved from earlier times because
a strong majority of Americans -- about 70% at that time -- opposed
mixed-race marriages. Almost half felt that marrying a person of another
race should be prosecuted as a criminal act. So loving, committed couples who happened to be of
different races were not allowed to marry. In the state of Virginia, a
Caucasian/Native American married couple was found guilty of co-habiting
and were given the choice of exile from the state or a jail sentence. They
took a third route: suing the state in a case that was ironically called
"Loving v. Virginia." In 1967, the U.S. Supreme court declared the
miscegenation laws that then existed in 16 states to be unconstitutional.
Since that ruling, couples of any combination of races can marry, and receive state and federal
benefits and protections for themselves and their children. Meanwhile,
racial bigots can still disapprove of inter-racial marriage and hate
whatever race they want. Everyone is accommodated. To add an extra level of
irony in this case, during 1968 the State of Virginia adopted a new state
motto: "Virginia is for lovers."
More details about the case.|
|Until the 1980s, most Americans felt that
same-sex behavior should be illegal, including consensual sex between two
adults in private. The state of Texas, and three other contiguous states had
criminalized certain same-sex activities, even though the same behaviors
were legal if performed by an opposite-sex couple. Nine additional states
prohibited certain behaviors engaged in by both same-sex and opposite-sex
couples. In 2003-JUN, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that all of these "sodomy
laws" were unconstitutional. The case was Lawrence v.
Texas. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that Gays are "entitled
to respect for their private lives. The state cannot demean their existence
or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime."
Since that ruling, consenting adults can engage in any private sexual
activity that they wish. Homophobes can still express hatred against
homosexuality and/or homosexuals. Everyone is accommodated.
More details about the case.|
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Patrik Jonsson, "Raise your right hand and swear to tell the truth ... on
the Koran?," The Christian Science Monitor, 2005-JUL-20, at:
- "Missouri Plaintiff May Strike 'So Help Me God'," Freethought Today
magazine, 2001-MAR, at:
- Barbara Mikkelson, "Rolled Oaths," Rumor Has It, 2005-JAN-01, at:
Copyright © 2007 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-NOV-23
Latest update: 2009-NOV-18
Author: B.A. Robinson