Friday, January 18, 2013

The sacramentality of oaths

Dean Obeidallah is apparently one of those people who believe that, if you say “separation of church and state” over and over long enough, the “free exercise” clause will disappear from the First Amendment. Just read his latest post on if you don’t believe me.

Obeidallah, if you’ll remember, is the guy who accused Rick Santorum of wishing to impose a “Christian Sharia” with such overwrought language that I almost forgot he’s a comedian — or at least he’s been billed as a comedian. This post is more lucid and more thoughtful than the Santorum nutty — perhaps he’s finally getting the hang of this mug’s game — so we can and should do him the courtesy of taking him seriously.

Obeidallah doesn’t believe Pres. Obama should use any Bible, let alone two when he swears in for the second time. He points out, quite correctly, that Article IV prohibits the government from imposing religious tests for public office or trust. He points out, again most correctly, that Theodore Roosevelt and John Q. Adams did not use Bibles at their own oaths of office. 

For the record, I’ll provide the information Obeidallah was lacking about TR’s motives: like Adams, Roosevelt believed in a fairly strict construction of the “establishment clause”, going so far as to try to have “In God We Trust” stricken from our money. Also for the record, both Roosevelt and Adams were devout, churchgoing mainline Protestants.

“Some will argue,” Obeidallah writes, “that swearing on the Bible ensures the president adheres to his oath. But let’s be honest: We have seen presidents and other elected officials swear to uphold the laws of our country with their hands on a Bible and go on to break many laws and ethical rules. It comes down to the person’s moral code, not a 30-second oath.”

And just so it’s clear, my objection is not only to the Bible. I would hold the identical view if it were the Quran, the Book of Mormon or any other religious scripture.
The Founding Fathers made it clear that the U.S. Constitution, “... shall be the supreme law of the land.”  It is the living legacy they bestowed upon us.  It is the framework for our government.  And as such, that’s the document our president should place his hand on.
It should be clear to all that the president views the Constitution as our nation’s genesis.

All in all, Obeidallah brings up some very good points. He missed out on the fact that it isn’t necessary either for the president to say, “So help me, God,” as part of the oath; George Washington interjected the aspiration on his first oath-taking, but that didn’t bind anyone else in law. But all in all, he stated his case clearly, undramatically, and without undue rancor. 

And in doing so, he thoroughly demonstrated that he doesn’t understand the gesture at all.

Once upon a time, when men didn’t have to impress the masses with their religiosity in order to rule, taking an oath was something more than a simple affirmation or promise. Of course, you were expected to make good on your promises and affirmations, because community life depends on trust, and becomes more unstable as trust evaporates and promises are broken. With an oath, on the other hand, you deliberately mortgaged your soul; you placed your eternal life in jeopardy of damnation if you didn’t make good on your word.

Taking an oath, by its nature, was — and to many people, still is — a religious act. At the time, the oath was taken with one’s hands on holy relics, or the crucifix, or even on the hilt of a sword because of the resemblance to a cross. By holding the sacred object while making his oath, the person taking the oath reinforced the sacramental nature of the oath. He was no longer making this promise only to men but to God as well.

Bibles served the same purpose as well. Prior to the advent of the printing press, Bibles were large and very expensive, and thus not very practical items to carry about. When the Protestant Reformation kicked in, as different communions rejected such things as relics and other sacramentals, the Bible, now more portable and cheaper to produce, served as a convenient replacement.

That the Christian trappings of the oath should now be considered ceremonial deism — ritual expressions emptied by custom of any real religious import — is simply the measure of how much faith we have lost in the sacred nature of oaths. The trappings themselves are defensible as expressions the President’s personal religiosity, which he has as much right to express as any other citizen. Obeidallah may not believe in a personal God who calls people to account for their lies and broken promises, but Obama just might.

Obeidallah is right to call the Constitution the “living legacy” of our founders and “our nation’s genesis”. And it’s perfectly natural to wish to find in the symbols of our nation, or bestow upon them, a kind of workaday sacramentality, just as Chesterton spoke of kingship having the “savor of incense” about it.

But part of having a strong moral code is being willing to back your spoken word with your honor, your reputation, your wealth or liberty … even your life. If the oath of office is nothing more than an elaborate, ritualized promise, and promises are just so much gas, then why bother with it? Have we so far lost our way that the words “I do solemnly swear to do thus” means nothing more than “I’ll give it a try”?

If Pres. Obama doesn’t feel or believe that, when he takes the oath, he stakes something personal and intrinsically valuable that could be irretrievably lost by breaking faith … well, then I’d just as soon he affirmed rather than swore to faithfully execute the Constitution and so forth, minus all props. But if he’s going to invoke divine aid upon his efforts, the symbol should be religious, not secular. It is not the office that takes the oath but the man elected to fill it.