Score one for the secular humanists. The U.S. Air Force announced this week that it is dropping the “So help me, God” coda to its oath of enlistment. The phrase will also no longer be mandatory in oaths administered when officers are commissioned.
The catalyst for the change: a suit filed on behalf of an atheist airman who crossed out the words when he filed to re-enlist.
But how, pray tell, did this shout-out to the Almighty find its way into civilian and military oaths of office in the first place?
There’s some indication that the custom began more than 1,000 years ago. Evidence suggests that the Norsemen required those who appeared in court to swear before a priest, grasping a ring dipped in the blood of an ox killed for the occasion, and utter these words: “I take oath by the ring, law-oath, so help me Frey, and Niörd, and almighty Thor.”
In this case, fealty was sworn to three gods (two of whom are commemorated in days of the week), which makes it a rather awkward precedent for monotheistic Christian ritual, never mind modern judicial process. Moreover, this original invocation was not an invitation for the gods to pass judgment on the person stupid enough to lie, but rather to help the person giving testimony.
But this didn’t stop Christians, and eventually, courts of law, from repurposing this ritual, minus the ox blood, and with the bible taking the place of the ring. The phrase surfaced in Latin, German, and French forms, and eventually in English, initially as “so help me God at his holy dome.”
The meaning was now rather different: the oath invited the wrath of the Almighty at judgment day on anyone who dared bear false witness. This meaning, which was in place by the 1300s or 1400s, was in keeping with the religious tenor of the times.
The declaration soon became commonplace in England, figuring in court oaths and military oaths. Not everyone approved: the non-conformist Quakers, for example, refused to utter the words. But kings embraced the phrase; ordinary citizens likewise uttered the words when appearing in court.
In colonial Virginia, then part of the British Empire, a typical oath of allegiance went as follows: “I Do Sincerely Promise and Swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to his Majesty, King George the third. So help me God.”
Of course, God works in mysterious ways. When the colonists launched a violent revolution to overthrow British rule, the Continental Congress began to require military officers and civilian leaders to declare that “I renounce, refuse and abjure any allegiance or obedience” to the king, along with further declarations in the same vein, and sealing the deal with a “So help me God.” Enlisted men, by contrast, read a far simpler oath, promising to follow orders and otherwise behave.
In 1789, when the Constitution became the law of the land, secular forces scored a victory: the oath for all members of the military no longer required the “So help me, God.” In fact, the oath made no mention of a higher power at all, save for the president and the Constitution.
Popular myth holds that George Washington himself ad-libbed at the end of his first inaugural, and appended the four words to the oath contained in the Constitution: “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.”
This legend, repeated by several distinguished historians who shall remain nameless, does not, in fact, appear to be true. Instead, the evidence suggests it may be a fabrication of another Washington: the novelist Washington Irving, who said he recalled the first president’s riff from childhood.
In any case, the appeal to God seems to have fallen into some disuse in the early 19th century. One newspaper, the Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot, went so far as to mock the use of the phrase, saying that “this expression has become quite the rage in England,” used by horse jockeys, boxers and other unsavory characters.
But it made a comeback during the Civil War. Under an act of July 2, 1862, officers in the Union Army now swore an elaborate oath to the U.S. that ended with “so help me God.” Not coincidentally, Congress passed legislation in 1864 that put “In God We Trust” on some of the nation’s coins – offering further proof that there are no atheists in foxholes.
But it didn’t become standard for presidential oaths until the untimely death of James Garfield, a remarkably gifted leader whose presidency was cut short by an assassin’s bullet. His vice-president, Chester Arthur, was widely thought to be unfit for the office – a view that Arthur may himself have shared; indeed, Arthur described the prospect of becoming president as a “calamity.”
So perhaps Arthur had something different in mind when he took the oath of office in the privacy of his home. When he said “so help me God,” he probably wasn’t thinking of divine wrath, but rather, the original Viking meaning of the phrase: help me!
The custom caught on with subsequent presidents. And the armed forces continued the tradition for officers. It was added to the general enlistment oath in 1960, as the struggle with the godless Soviets heated up to dangerous levels, with the change becoming effective a few weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And there it had remained. The founders, many of whom described themselves as “deists” with limited enthusiasm for organized religion, might have approved of the change announced by the Air Force. But whether the change is appropriate will probably be hotly debated in the midterm elections and beyond, perhaps becoming – God help us – yet another polarizing issue to divide the nation.
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View.