Preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
These words have for over two centuries bound any man undertaking the office of the President of the United States to the faithful execution of his office. In context, they form the most integral part of an oath, sworn with dignity and reverence for the indomitable, ever-shifting moral code of one’s country.
And yet, every president-elect who has ever spoken the words, Theodore Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams excluded, has done it in nearly identical fashion—not with his hand on the Constitution has he sworn to uphold or on any legally binding contract, but on a 2000-year-old book, rife with contradiction, fragmentation, and fabrication, held sacred by only 32 percent of the rest of the world.
There is no mention in the oath of any Judeo-Christian God. The president-elect, therefore, is under no obligation to swear this oath to anyone or anything. Enumerated explicitly in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, it would seem that the phrasing of this oath is the product of a careful group of men dedicated to the production of a unique document—the basis for a secular republic, founded upon and governed by nonreligious moral principles, which would themselves be subject to change by learned discourse and democratic processes at any time.
The words “so help me God” would have been a simple alteration, and one that we can say with near certainty would have been made if our founding fathers had deemed the addition necessary. This final clause remains part of a similar oath—one not prescribed explicitly in the Constitution—taken by the vice president and members of Congress to this day. Yet, the phrase is absent from the oath that binds our commander-in-chief.
Either the framers of the Constitution anticipated the inclement weather on the steps of the Capitol building and sought to trim the oath a bit, or there is actually something to this absence of religious rhetoric with regard to the office of the presidency.
It is remarkable that our head of state is one of a small number in the world that does not have—and has never had—any sort of religious litmus test for eligibility.
Yet, as the president touches his gloved hand to the Bible in January, one cannot help feeling that the office remains imbued with an unspoken obligation to the Christian faith.
As religious faith continues to decline in the rest of the world, one cannot help but wonder if adherence to Christianity is actually beneficial to the leader of the free world, or if it—like a comb-over or a Y chromosome—is yet another one of the outdated and unnecessary preconceived notions associated with the presidency of which we cannot seem to rid ourselves. Must a person believe in God in order to do the job effectively? And if we continue to impose this unspoken religious requirement, will we exclude qualified nonbelievers from the running entirely?
While I’d like to believe otherwise, it remains difficult to imagine a person who has yet to accept Jesus Christ as his or her personal lord and savior ever advancing further than the primary stages of an election. It seems that there is no place in American politics for those who do not believe that religion is important—a rarity in the modern world.
A recent study conducted by the Pew Research center on the “American-Western European Values Gap” suggests that the U.S. is behind the secularization curve, noting that 46 percent of Americans consider themselves Christian first and American second, compared to just 21 percent and 8 percent of British and French citizens, respectively, who identify with faith before nationality. Similarly, 53 percent of Americans believe that God is absolutely necessary for morality, while 20, 19, and 15 percent of Britain, Spain, and France, respectively, express that opinion.
If nothing else, these numbers remind us that the American view of its head of state, and its apparent grounding in religious faith, actually shares more in common with the quasi-theocratic regimes of modern-day Israel or 17th-century England than those of its secular, democratic allies.
There are many countries that require their heads of state to be of a certain religion. They make up a list of 30 countries, characterized largely by slow to nonexistent social and scientific progress. While there is no danger of the U.S. joining such a list, would the presidency really have to change much if it did?
Featured Image by Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photo