Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The 'So Help Me God' Controversy

A number of groups advocating religious freedom have just instituted a lawsuit that would prevent the Chief Justice from using the words 'God' in the swearing-in ceremony for the President at the Inauguration. Naturally, this is being spun up by the press, since religious controversy is always a big draw. The plaintiffs admit that a President can insert the words in the ceremony, but the government official who swears him in cannot. Historically, the courts have taken the position that such words constitute "ceremonial deism" that serves a secular purpose.

Are the words "So help me God" valid in a secular government ceremony? Is this lawsuit a good tactic for secularists to pursue? As a staunch secularist, I have mixed feelings about it. I would rather try to persuade religious folks of the value of secular government, and I don't think that this controversy moves us in that direction.

On the other had, the "ceremonial deism" excuse strikes me as a transparent ruse to weaken the Constitutional requirement of a religion-neutral government. Deism is about belief in a God who doesn't intervene in human affairs. The term is misused here by theists, who feel that God will be more kindly disposed to us if we make every excuse to beg his help.

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