March 2019 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A committee in the U.S. House of Representatives considered making the words “So help me God” optional for witnesses who appear before it, but quickly dropped the idea after criticism from conservatives.

House committees have the power to invite or subpoena witnesses to offer testimony. When people testify before committees, they are sworn to tell the truth with an oath that’s very similar to what you might hear in a courtroom.

The House Committee on Natural Resources has in the past used a witness oath that reads, “Do you solemnly swear or affirm that the testimony that you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Its proposed new version read, “Do you solemnly swear or affirm, under penalty of law, that the testimony that you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

The Fox News Channel and other right-wing media outlets assailed the committee. U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) told the far-right network, “[The Democrats] really have become the party of Karl Marx.”

Democrats quickly backtracked. U.S. Rep. Jefferson Van Drew of New Jersey, a committee member, issued a statement saying it would be “hurtful and harmful” for the committee “to go out of our way to take it out.”

Jared Huffman

PHOTO: U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.)

But not all committee members agreed. U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D. Calif.) argued that the oath is problematic from a church-state standpoint.  “All of these trappings of religion and God in these oaths certainly have not kept an awful lot of people from lying under oath,” Huffman said in a media interview.

The use of the phrase “So help me God” in oaths is largely a matter of tradition. It’s not required by the Constitution. Presidents have traditionally added those words to the Oath of Office, but it’s not mandated. Oaths used in courtrooms and in other contexts often include the phrase, but in recent years some courts have shifted to non-religious reminders for witnesses to tell the truth because if they fail to, they’ll be punished with fines or prison terms.

Writing on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, AU Senior Adviser Rob Boston wrote, “After all, what do we actually gain by pressuring an atheist to swear in the name of a deity he or she does not accept? The gang at Fox News might want to ponder the following statement: ‘A magistrate ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man … and cause him to take the name of God in vain.’

“What left-wing Marxist said that? Actually, it was colonial-era religious freedom pioneer Roger Williams. Williams was a far-sighted man and a devout Christian to boot. Fox News could learn a thing or two from him.”