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Obama Defies Activists and Keeps 'So Help Me God' in Oath -- but Do You Know the Phrase's Fascinating History?


"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States..."

There's been a great deal of discussion and debate surrounding this year's inaugural festivities. From atheist activists who have worked diligently to discourage the president from using the Bible and God's name at the event, to MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell and his recent lambasting of these traditions. In all, there's been much discussion about removing faith from the historic procession. However, despite the criticism, President Barack Obama, once again, decided to keep the words, "So help me God" at the end of his oath.

Abraham Lincoln, America's 16th president (Photo Credit: AP) 

The decision to continue with this statement was made by Obama, himself, despite the fact that there is no legal or constitutional mandate demanding that he utter these words. CNN notes that the tradition surrounding, "So help me God" is one that has been intensely-disputed by historians, however the government's official account, as per the Library of Congress, is that the words were added in by George Washington during the nation's first inaugural proceeding.

Article II of the U.S. Constitution does not mention a higher power. It reads, "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." However, this hasn't stopped many presidents, Obama included, from continuing to invoke the name of the almighty. 

The history behind the statement is somewhat difficult to nail down -- and even the Library of Congress seems to offer contradictory or incomplete information surrounding the matter. At the center of the controversy is the question of who truly began using the term.

It appears that Abraham Lincoln said it in 1861, too, and that the tradition has continued. Some claim that it was Lincoln -- and not Washington -- who was the first to do it (yet another question in dispute).

But the plot thickens.

In an official recap of precedents published on the Library of Congress web site, divergent information is given. In this account, Chester A. Arthur is the first president credited with saying "So help me God" -- in 1881.

While the beginnings of the tradition are still debated -- particularly whether Washington actually added the "God" wording in -- numerous sources trace where the tradition took root. Author Washington Irving wrote in his book, "George Washington, A Biography," that the nation's first president did, indeed, invoke God's name at his inauguration in 1789.

"The oath was read slowly and distinctly, Washington at the same time laying his hand on the open Bible," wrote Irving. "When it was concluded, he replied solemnly, 'I swear—so help me God!' Mr. Otis would have raised the Bible to his lips, but he bowed down reverently and kissed it."

Despite a refusal among some to accept this popular rendition of what unfolded during Washington's inauguration, Encyclopedia Brittanica appears to corroborate Irving's account of the president's words:

George Washington added the words “so help me God” to the oath of office (the original text of which is prescribed by the U.S. Constitution), then bent forward to kiss the Bible. How did these words and this gesture come about? Supposedly the chief justice of New York’s Supreme Court admonished Washington and others that an oath that was not sworn on the Bible would lack legitimacy. As no Bible could be found in Federal Hall, where the swearing in was to be held, one was borrowed from a Masonic lodge a few blocks away.

The Constitution Center notes that Americans can never know with 100 percent certainty whether Washington did, indeed, insert the statement, as C-SPAN and other media that would have recorded such an occurrence were not yet in operation. Regardless, there is still a long and robust history surrounding presidential use and invocation of the words, "So help me God." You can read a bit more about this history here.

Tradition, though, hasn't stopped atheist activists from attempting to stop presidents from intermingling church and state in their official oaths of office. While TheBlaze has reported about recent claims from this cohort that Obama should abandon these practices, CNN has a historical account of an attempted court battle that unfolded during the last inaugural cycle:

Four years ago, a California atheist, Michael Newdow, objected and went to federal court to prevent Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts from prompting the president-elect to repeat the "so help me God phrase."

Newdow, along with several non-religious groups, argued the words violate the constitutional ban on government "endorsement" of religion.

The high court ultimately rejected the lawsuit two years ago, and no such legal challenges are expected this time.

As for Obama, in 2013, as he did in 2009, the president has decided to continue the tradition of utilizing the Bible, while also mentioning God's name. On Sunday, while giving the official oath from the White House's Blue Room, Obama uttered these words and he is expected to do the same at a public event on Monday.



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