A committee in the U.S. House of Representatives is considering making the words “So help me God” optional for witnesses who appear before it, a move that has caused the entire Fox News Channel to explode in rage.
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?”
The proposed new version will say, “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 change not only protects the freedom of conscience of those who would rather not swear a religious oath, but it also provides an important reminder that there’s a serious penalty for lying under oath – as some people have learned lately.
Nevertheless, Fox News is going ballistic. U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) told the far-right network, “They really have become the party of Karl Marx.”
As I’ve noted before, this business with oaths is fraught with tradition. Consider the Oath of Office taken by the president. Nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires presidents to swear on a Bible or say the words “So help me God.” Presidents have traditionally added those words to the oath, but it’s not required.
Similarly, tradition explains the use of the phrase in oaths used in courtrooms and in other contexts. Oaths to “tell the whole truth” have a long lineage in Western culture – they’re mentioned in the writings of the Roman statesman Cicero. It’s unclear when the religious element crept in (perhaps during the Middle Ages), but more and more courts are making secular alternatives available for those who’d rather not, for whatever reason, say the words “So help me God.”
Some congressional committees are now offering similar accommodations. It’s hardly the end of the world. 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.