President Obama took the oath of office for his second term this week, and like many chief executives before him, he ended his oath with the words “So help me God.” Behind those words lies a longstanding tradition, but also a contemporary controversy. More importantly, though, they serve as a reminder to all Who is really in control.
Invoking God’s Name in the Presidential Oath of Office
The U.S. Constitution, Art. II § 1, states that before the President takes office he must take the following oath:
“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.”
Nowhere does the Constitution require the mention of God’s name in an oath.(1) However, legend has it that George Washington used the phrase after his inaugural oath, and it was contemporaneously documented as used in the oaths of many presidents since Abraham Lincoln.
The last time Barack Obama was sworn in as President, a group of atheists sued to prevent the Chief Justice John Roberts from prompting the President with the words “So help me God.” The plaintiffs conceded that the President himself has a First Amendment right to use the phrase, but they argued that it is unconstitutional for the Chief Justice to prompt the President with those words. See Newdow v. Roberts, 603 F.3d 1002 (dismissed for mootness and lack of standing).
A Reminder to Us All
To those who learn and follow God’s will, manifested in the Torah, it is encouraging to see the leader of one of the most powerful nations invoke His name when he takes the oath of office. But it also must remind us that as much as it appears that the President alone is making important executive decisions, it is really the Almighty who is in control.
The wisest of all kings, Shlomo HaMelech, tells us, “Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of Hashem; whichever way He desires he directs it.” (Mishle [Proverbs] 21:1) The Midrash, quoting Rabbi Yishmael, explains:
Just like water, when you put it in a vessel you can tilt it to any direction you desire, so too when a man of flesh and blood becomes king, his heart is placed in the hand of Hashem: if the world is meritorious, Hashem directs the heart of the king towards good decrees; but if the world is guilty, Hashem directs his heart towards evil decrees.
The mention of God’s name in the President’s oath reminds him that even he answers to a higher authority. But it also must stir us to the realization that how he executes his duties will ultimately depend on our deeds. When the President acts in a way that impacts negatively upon us, we cannot place all the blame on him; we are also at fault. After all, “The heart of a king is in the hand of Hashem.”