Defenders of the Constitution lost another round in court last week. You may recall that when Barack Obama was inaugurated last year, Michael Newdow and others filed suit to require the Chief Justice to administer his oath of office in the manner that is prescribed, word for word, in our Constitution. The Chief Justice had proposed, at Obama’s request, to modify the words by violating yet another rule of the Constitution, the one against government promotion of religion, by adding the prayer “So help me God” to the oath. The district court ruled against Newdow, and now the D.C. Circuit Court has affirmed that ruling.
In doing so, the court stated that every President since George Washington had added this prayer to the oath – a myth that I debunked last year. The court also said that it was too late for it to rule on a 2009 oath that had already happened, and too early to rule on future oaths that have not yet happened, a neat Catch-22 that appears to allow free reign for future violations without any judicial oversight whatsoever.
This matter brings to mind another situation involving religion in an oath of office, from 1775 France. For the preceding 250 years, officially Catholic France had been cracking down on its small Protestant minority. Six different civil wars were fought in the late 16th century, which were finally put to rest when the leading Protestant prince agreed to unite the country by converting to Catholicism. A few years later, after being recognized as king, he issued the Edict of Nantes, guaranteeing perpetual religious freedom for Protestants and bringing France unprecedented peace and prosperity. But the Pope called the Edict “the worst thing in the world,” and a zealous Catholic ultimately assassinated the king. Thereafter, the screws on France’s Protestants were turned progressively tighter. One favored technique, called the dragonnade, involved the forced quartering of French soldiers (who were often not nice young men) in the homes of Protestants, until their hosts would agree to convert to Catholicism.
Ultimately, in 1685, Louis XIV announced that there were no Protestants left in France, and thus repealed the “perpetual” Edict of Nantes altogether. Hundreds of thousands of Protestants then fled the country, crippling its economy just at the time when Louis was nearing hegemony over all of Europe, thus ruining his plans.
French Protestantism was ultimately saved by Voltaire, even though he despised it as being even more unreasonable than what was then an agreeably decadent Catholicism. In 1762 a Toulouse Protestant named Jean Calas was brutally tortured and executed for having murdered his son for allegedly having decided to convert to Catholicism, despite overwhelming evidence that the son had simply committed suicide. Voltaire made the case a cause célèbre, hammering away for years at the total lack of evidence of the son’s proposed conversion, and the physical impossibility that his death could have occurred the way the judges said it did. Ultimately Voltaire succeeded in getting the central government at Paris to review the case, despite its arguable lack of authority to do so; by a vote of 40-0, the review panel concluded that a terrible injustice had been done, while blaming the intolerance against France’s Protestant community for the outrage.
At a late stage of the Calas campaign, Voltaire published his brilliant Treatise on Tolerance, demolishing the folly of religious bigotry throughout recorded history. The Calas verdict and the Treatise both made a deep impression on French public opinion, and by the time the future Louis XVI was ready to be crowned in 1775 he had determined in his own mind to restore the freedoms of the Edict of Nantes. But there was one enormous problem: in the oath of office to be sworn before God and the nation at the time of his coronation, he had to swear to exterminate all heretics from his dominions. He wasn’t king yet, so he couldn’t change the oath. What to do, what to do …
History does not regard Louis XVI as being particularly intelligent or brave, as he blundered his way into what became the French Revolution. But his strategy at coronation, though ignominious, is hard to criticize. Before the assembled nobility and hierarchy of France in the majestic cathedral of Reims, as he solemnly intoned his coronation oath, when he got to the part about exterminating the heretics, he mumbled. (For those of us who have difficulty with a language that only pronounces half its letters, spoken French often sounds mumbled anyway.) To this day no one knows exactly what he said. The presiding cardinal was either too surprised, too inattentive, or too timid (or some combination thereof) to ask him to the repeat the words. Louis would never reveal what he said; but when shortly thereafter he began removing the legal disabilities on French Protestants, he was safe from the charge of having violated his oath.
How different the Obama approach! The words “So help me God” do not appear in the oath as it is delineated in the Constitution, a document notable for never using the word “God” at all. This was no accident; there was extended debate at the Constitutional Convention about whether the fundamental law of the land should refer to God, and the humanist side won. When George Washington first took the oath, he apparently said it the way it was written; there is no evidence that any other President until Chester Arthur in 1881 chose to re-write the oath. Obama was simply pandering to the God experts by ignoring the Constitution, as other politicians do.
If there is a conclusion to be drawn from contrasting these two oath modifications, it is that legal formality does not matter as much as culture. Voltaire and his adherents changed the culture of 18th century France by making people ashamed of the prevailing intolerance. Once that happened, it made no difference what the law prescribed – even a creampuff like Louis XVI found the backbone to do the right thing. In 21st century America, the God experts are allowed to have such unquestioned command over the culture that a smart fellow raised in a humanist household like Obama knuckles under, injecting a supernatural element into a civil oath where it does not belong.
So we need another Voltaire, right? Not going to happen. What can happen, though, was foreshadowed by Prince Talleyrand in 1815: “There is someone who is cleverer than Voltaire, cleverer than Bonaparte, cleverer than any of the Directors, than any Minister in the past or in the future; and that person is everybody (tout le monde).” In the 21st century, tout le monde is empowered by this marvelous invention called the Internet, which has the same potential for weakening the stranglehold of supernaturalism as the printing press had 500 years ago. Écrasez l’Infâme!