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"So help me God" at swearing-in
ceremonies and in legal documents

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Background:

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 punish transgressors.

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 Christians 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 14%?

AMEN!
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" statement. 3

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. 3

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?"

bullet86% said they believe in God;
bullet8% said they were not sure about;
bullet6% 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?"

bullet78% said they believed in God;
bullet14% said they believe in a universal spirit;
bullet7% don't believe in either.
More details

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" phrase:

bulletWe can proceed with the will of the majority who would probably want to retain the compulsory use of the phrase.
 
bulletWe 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.
 
bulletWe 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.

bulletAtheists, Agnostics, 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.
 
bulletChristians, Muslims, 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 God public.

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.

bulletOne 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.
 
bulletUntil 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.

References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Patrik Jonsson, "Raise your right hand and swear to tell the truth ... on the Koran?,"  The Christian Science Monitor, 2005-JUL-20, at: http://www.csmonitor.com/
  2. "Missouri Plaintiff May Strike 'So Help Me God'," Freethought Today magazine, 2001-MAR, at: http://ffrf.org/
  3. Barbara Mikkelson, "Rolled Oaths," Rumor Has It, 2005-JAN-01, at: http://www.snopes.com/

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Copyright © 2007 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-NOV-23
Latest update: 2009-NOV-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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