The Family Research Council is outraged that the Air Force Academy has made it optional to say “So help me God” in its honor oath, claiming that the new policy is discriminatory against religious cadets…even though anyone can still say the phrase. On his radio program today, Tony Perkins of FRC said that the new policy is disrespectful of George Washington:
Who’s running the United States Air Force: General Mark Welsh or Mikey Weinstein? Hello, this is Tony Perkins with the Family Research Council in Washington. Anti-Christian crusader Mikey Weinstein recently probed the Air Force Academy. The Air Force Academy Superintendent responded in 68 minutes, when he marked down his objections to the phrase, “So help me God,” contained in the Academy honor code. Weinstein has been trying to drive Evangelicals out of the Academy for over a decade. During the tenure of one Superintendent, he boasted that he had a bath code that immediately connected him with the Academy boss. His complaint this time was a poster that included the honor oath with the phrase, “So help me God.” Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson said the oath is being reviewed because the Academy values an inclusive environment that promotes dignity and respect for all. Really? Does that include those like General George Washington who initiated the phrase, “So help me God,” or does that inclusion only make room for those who want to dismantle America’s Christian heritage?
On the same note, FRC senior fellow Ken Blackwell cited Washington as a reason to keep the phrase a requirement:
Let’s see: Why is that phrase so offensive? George Washington was a pretty successful general. And he took the oath as our first President in New York City on April 30, 1789.
When Chancellor Livingston swore Washington in as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, Washington added four words to the Constitutionally prescribed oath:
So Help Me God
Question for Mikey and Murfs: If George Washington could add those four words, and if every President since could add those four words, why should they offend an Air Force Academy cadet?
But as George Mason University history professor Peter Henriques writes, the story about Washington is most certainly a myth. In fact, James Madison excluded the words “So help me God” while working on a committee drafting an oath bill.
There is absolutely no extant contemporary evidence that President Washington altered the language of the oath as laid down in Article 2, Section 1 of 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.” A long letter by the French foreign minister Comte de Moustier, who attended the ceremony, repeated the oath verbatim and did not include the additional words. Apparently, it was not until 65 years after the event that the story that Washington added this phrase first appeared in a published volume. In his book, The Republican Court, Rufus Griswold cited a childhood memory of Washington Irving as his source. It took another 27 years before the first clearly documented case of a President adding the words, “So help me God,” was recorded — when Chester A. Arthur took the oath in 1881.
Proponents of the myth contend that Washington had expressed no personal objection to saying “So help me God” and had routinely taken such oaths during the colonial era. Perhaps, they contend, he simply added it as an afterthought or because he was caught up in the solemnity and reverence of the moment. While at first glance this is plausible, it seems certain that any such modification of the oath would have created comment at the time that would have survived in the historical record.
The reason for this assertion is at exactly the same time as these inaugural events were unfolding, the first Congress was debating what oath the new members of the new federal government should take so as to comply with the Constitution. Article Six called for an oath but specifically added, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Early arrivals to the House of Representatives had taken an oath that included the words, “So help me God.” But, following the lead of a committee led by James Madison, legislators passed a new oath act on April 27, 1789 — just three days before Washington’s inauguration — that excluded the words “So help me God.” The Senate, after adding unrelated amendments, passed the bill on May 5, 1789. Would the Senate have passed an oath bill without the words, “So help me God,” only five days after the great hero of the American people “solemnly” and “with fervor” added them to his own oath? And do so without any contemporary comment surviving?
Taken together, the complete lack of contemporary evidence, George Washington’s political philosophy of strictly following the Constitution and the concurrent debate over the proper wording of oaths under the new Constitution make it virtually certain that George Washington did not add the words “So help me God” to his inaugural oath.
The New York Times adds:
It’s no surprise, then, that Washington should become the subject of the recent genre of biographical writing that focuses on the machinery of fame and the ways in which it manipulates, ignores, embellishes or distorts the known facts about a famous individual’s life and work. In “Inventing George Washington,” Edward G. Lengel — editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington and a professor at the University of Virginia — says he intends to examine “Washington myths and mythmakers” and trace “the means by which they have defined and redefined the founder from the beginning of the 19th century up to the present day.”
In addition, Mr. Lengel says, many efforts have been made to “prove” that Washington added the phrase “so help me God” to the presidential oath of office in 1789, even though “the evidence is against” this argument: “There are no contemporary accounts indicating that Washington said ‘so help me God.’ Indeed, the Comte de Moustier, the French foreign minister, who stood near Washington as he took the oath and recorded it word for word, did not include the phrase in his meticulous account of the event.”
“In sum,” Mr. Lengel argues, “any attempt to prove that Washington added the words ‘so help me God’ requires mental gymnastics of the sort that would do credit to the finest artist of the flying trapeze. How much easier, then, just to assert over and over that it happened without making any attempt to justify it in the historical record and then appeal to it as a ‘tradition’ that must never be broken. Such, at least, has been the approach taken by defenders of this story since its first appearance in 1854, and the results have met their desires. Since Chester Arthur in 1881, presidents have included the words in almost every known oath of office, with greater and lesser degrees of drama. Though atheists, secular humanists and outraged academics occasionally pop up to protest, the tradition has become set in stone.”