So help me God?

Ceremonial words added at the end of the presidential oath of office, and not required by the Constitution, raise interesting questions about the role of faith in public life in a religiously pluralistic society.

By Molly T. Marshall

The afterglow of the great national celebration of our democracy lingers. Inauguration ceremonies offered a vision of who we are becoming as a people and called us to craft a future more progressive, more inclusive and more collaborative.

In his bracing 18-minute speech, President Obama contended: “America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands....” Further, he exhorted: “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together.”

I love visionary and enervating language, for inspired people can accomplish together what individuals cannot fathom alone and who usually flag before completion. Yet, I wonder if this soaring rhetoric neglects the reality of a fallen world, where our “better angels” too often give way to the corruptibility that enshrouds us.

After viewing the ceremony, I finally went to see the highly recommended film about Lincoln, the 16th president whom the current president so greatly admires. It was a moving experience to revisit the passage of the 13th Amendment just after seeing the first African-American president sworn in. Congress then was no less conflicted -- perhaps the debate was more full of invective, at least wittier -- and the burden of presidential leadership seems commensurate as human lives are always at stake.

Politics in a world of self-interest, prospects of re-election and serving constituencies as well as the common good are complicated human transactions. At the festive luncheon following the swearing in, President Obama observed that he had learned what his predecessors well knew, “the longer one remains in this role, the more humble one becomes.” It is an office that transcends personal competence.

Those of us outside the beltway are quick to criticize the gridlock of Washington, D.C., and one local congressman has described it to me as a “mean city.” All human cities have the challenge of justice for all, and the capital has the greatest charge to govern wisely.

Obama, like other presidents before him, added: “So help me God” to the end of the presidential oath. Those four words are not constitutionally required, whereas the protocol of other federal oaths invokes them.

Debate about the origin of this addition to the Constitution, as well as the practice of “swearing” on the Bible, has been long and thoughtful. Many wonder if this public endorsement of religion is somehow at odds with “liberty for all.”

As a Baptist theologian I am deeply committed to religious liberty, and I see this practice raising many questions in a religiously pluralistic society. Not all affirm the existence of one God, and many think cramming personal belief into the public square is a violation of the conscience of those whose secular orientation “has no need of that hypothesis,” as Laplace allegedly retorted to Napoleon as to whether his book of mathematics required the authorization of God.

As we heard those invited to pray at the inauguration parsing their words carefully, we realize anew the horizon of interfaith relations our age must embrace. It is holy work to recognize that many ways of faith can work together to create a more just and peaceful world. How we use words of conviction and personal witness matter in this process.

In the benediction offered by the Rev. Luis Leon, rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a historic congregation located across the street from the White House, he prayed that “with your blessing, we can see each other created in your image, a unit of God’s grace….”

As he invoked God’s blessing, he was calling for a new level of mutual respect, for without it “suspicion, despair and fear of those different from us will be our rule of life.” Even more moving was his prayer by name of “Barack” and “Joe,” that lovely practice of the Book of Common Prayer, i.e., regularly praying for public leaders.

As a Christian believer I trust that the great human project of democracy is dependent upon the mercy and sustaining presence of God. Thus I pray for our president and vice president, even as I work alongside others of different theological persuasion, that God’s intent for humanity increasingly be realized, which is our common task.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.