The Inauguration: A Deist Antecedent

Joshua Lacroix

Every four years the capital celebrates the ritual of the Inauguration. A ceremony that consecrates a solemn event, the swearing-in of the President elect. The oath of office is a re-enactment of the civil religious anointing of the President; the embodiment and guarantor of democracy.

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend, the constitution of the United States.

The Inauguration is deeply rooted in tradition. In 1789 George Washington became the first President in a ceremony held in New York city.

The first chief justice of New York state, John Jay, thought that the swearing-in lacked legitimacy without a Bible and requested that one should be provided for the ceremony. None could be found in the Federal Hall were the first inauguration was held. Ironically, a Bible from a neighborhood Masonic Lodge was borrowed to proceed with the ceremony.

George Washington inaugurated the first swearing-in with his hand on the Bible. He also kissed the Bible after taking the oath of office. Although most presidents use a Bible, some Presidents have opted to affirm their oath rather than swear to it.

The Constitution does not mention anything about the Inauguration ceremonials. Nor that the President must place his hand on the Bible while taking the oath of office. We owe these antecedents to George Washington. He also added the words:

So Help me God

Thomas Jefferson was the first President to be sworn in Washington D.C. in 1801. The inauguration has been basically the same ever since with each President adding their own unique traditions along the way. A celebration that includes an Inaugural Day church service, the swearing-in at the Capitol, the inaugural parade and several inaugural balls.

A Deist Perspective

George Washington was a free mason and a deist. The Washington National Monument, a most visible structure of the political capital, was financed and built by the free masons in honor of their great brethren.

Even though the first President was a deist, he nevertheless inaugurated the use of the Bible for the swearing-in. The “deist believes in the existence of God or supreme being but denies revealed religion, basing his beliefs on the light of nature and reason”. The classical Deist comparison, also adopted by the free masons, relates that God is like a clock-maker. God wound up the clock at the beginning of the world once and for all, so it can run on and produce world history.

Foremost the Deist relies on nature and reason to understand God’s design in the universe. The Deist does not believe in the “revealed” word related in holy books of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc… Deism views “God as an eternal entity whose power is equal to his/her will”. A quote from Einstein is often used to describe an eloquent deist view of God:

My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.

Typically Deists do not believe in God’s intervention in human affairs. However, some deists believe that God did intervene (providence) on behalf of George Washington in the most historical and crucial moments of his life.

Revelation

For the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions God revealed Himself in the holy texts of the Bible or the Koran. These sacred books reveal the manifest Presence of God in the world and to the world. It is through His chosen divine “revelation” that God manifest himself in these holy texts.

For the religious, God is not a power in the background, but IS the mysterious and inmost grounds of Being. For the Christian believer this revelation can only be found in the Bible.

Deism, Revelation and Heresy

It is one of the paradoxes of the United States that a Deist would put his hand on the Bible as he is inaugurated as the first President. An even greater paradox that a born-again Christian would follow suit thereafter. Both contradicting their own beliefs and the sacred text on which they have laid their hand…

Matthew 5:33 Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Contribution by Ray Soller:

In the article: The Inauguration: A Deist Antecedent, Joshua Lacroix wrote:

The Constitution does not mention anything about the Inauguration ceremonials. Nor that the President must place his hand on the Bible while taking the oath of office. We owe these antecedents to George Washington. He also added the words:  “So Help me God” (SHMG).

Recently Washington’s religion has been described as a “theistic rationalist” (Realistic Visionary – A Portrait of George Washington), a term that has been coined by Gregg Frazer. When reflecting back upon Washington’s personal religion, it is surprising that he would have added the words, “So help me God.”

The fact is that all firsthand historical records describe the first twenty presidents as swearing to their oath of office exactly as prescribed by the Constitution. Most people believe that the practice of concluding the presidential oath with SHMG started with George Washington. However, in spite of the widespread notion to the contrary, there is no contemporary historical evidence showing that George Washington added anything to his presidential oath of office, or that any of Washington’s successors for the next 150 years actually recognized adding “So help me God” as a traditional part of the inauguration.   The first President, who is known to have added those words to his presidential oath, is Chester Allen Arthur. He appended SHMG to his oath when he was sworn into office on Sept. 22, 1881 after the death of President Garfield. Later on, several other presidents during the first third of the 20th Century adopted this practice. The last President, who did not use those words, was Herbert Hoover.

One may say that a President can choose to add these words to the presidential oath, but it is a clear violation of the Constitution, and surely not a good idea for a judicial official to prompt the President to succumb to a religious test of office. This, unfortunately, has been the unbroken practice since FDR’s Inaugural Ceremony in 1933, and there is no record that this practice started with George Washington.

A customary place for a President to acknowledge God’s role in our national affairs is the Inaugural Address. In deed all Presidents with one exception have done so. Washington’s second Inaugural Ceremony, in contrast to his first (where Chancellor Livingston, a fellow Mason, most likely, requested a Bible; where Madison drafted Washington’s Inaugural Address; and where Congress laid out the concluding church service), was one which Washington managed completely. There was no planned church service, or official prayer. Furthermore, there were no reports of a Bible being present, or Washington saying, “So help me God.”

The practice of adding “So help me God” to federal oaths outside of the courtroom began in 1862 with the Iron-clad Test Oath during the Civil War. It was supposed to keep Confederate sympathizers from participating in the Federal Government. It may well have been a counter-measure designed to offset the psychological impact that followed when Jefferson Davis repeated “So help me God” as he took his oath of office for the Confederacy. It wasn’t until President Arthur’s administration that the federal oath was restored to a degree of normalcy, and stripped of its designed Civil War anti-Confederate hostilities. As you are probably well aware, Congress preferred to retain the “So help me God” anomaly.

The notion that George Washington, as the President of the Constitutional Convention, would, at any subsequent time, disregard the concerted effort of the convention delegates and spatchcock the presidential oath is an unsubstantiated Orwellian legend.

I hope that you can find this information helpful.

Sincerely, Ray Soller

Additional information:

www.inaugural.senate.gov/history/index.html

http://www.constitutioncenter.org/visiting/CalendarofEvents/Events/2007_02_06_17077.shtml

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