Most Americans may not realize the biblical roots of Constitutional law, which actually protects America from becoming a “theocratic government.” Biblical principles advance freedom, not coercion. And freedom and independence are predicated on the reality that moral absolutes pre-exist universally—independent from government regulation, oversight, or policies.
Of the more than 2,000 Bible verses that teach civics, the majority offers examples of fair, just, and evil rulers, judges, and political authorities and their governance methods. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to argue any single document has influenced American law or culture more than the Ten Commandments. Each commandment is directly applied throughout the Bill of Rights and American laws—for their benefit.
Yet prior to even administering laws, public officials are legally required to take an oath to uphold the standards of the office and commit to protect and serve citizens according to the laws of the land. Oath taking since the beginning of American jurisprudence customarily involves raising one’s right hand while placing the other on a Bible, repeating the oath, and stating, “So help me God.”
This practice non-coincidentally originates from the Bible. God offers a covenant between Him and His people and claims to swear to his oath by using his right hand (Ezek. 20:15, 23, 36:7; Psalm 106:26; Isa. 62:8). God also instructed His people to swear by His name and also raise their right hand when taking oaths (Deut. 10:20). (Fifty-eight verses describe the significance of God’s right hand in protecting, helping, strengthening, encouraging, guiding, and expressing love towards his people.)
Prior to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, several state legal codes required oath takers to swear not just by God, but also “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Connecticut 1639). Georgia law instructed that oaths not only be taken with one’s right hand on the Bible but also on “the holy evangelist of Almighty God,” the four Gospels of the New Testament (1756). Virginia’s law, written by Thomas Jefferson, required that those being sworn into public office “shall swear … ‘So help you God’” (Nov. 25, 1776). North Carolina required oath takers to “kiss the Holy Gospels” (1777).
The Founding Fathers were aware of these state laws and considered oath taking a religious activity. James Madison, the architect of the Bill of Rights, stated, “An oath … is the strongest of religious ties.”
John Adams attested, “Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations.”
Another signer of the Declaration of Independence, Oliver Wolcott, who supported adopting the federal Constitution, argued in 1788, “The Constitution enjoins an oath upon all the officers of the United States. This is a direct appeal to that God … Such an appeal to Him is a full acknowledgement of His being and providence.”
Likewise, recorded eyewitness accounts describe the Chancellor of New York, Robert Livingston, administering the first presidential oath of office to George Washington on April 30, 1789. Washington placed his hand on a Bible, proclaimed, “So help me God,” and kissed the Gospels, all of which was customary New York law.
The framers understood that legally binding oaths were not solely secular formalities but a practice rooted in Biblical principles.
If the God of the Bible was insignificant, why would Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, reference Him four times in that Declaration? (“The laws of nature and nature’s God,” All men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” “The Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” and “The protection of Divine Providence.”)
Jefferson intentionally declared that a deity exists and is knowable by human reason. He also intentionally identified God as the Supreme Judge, not just a judge.
Jefferson asked in Notes on the State of Virginia,
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God?”
Jefferson answers this question when he defined and emphasized the importance of religion when writing the State of Virginia’s Bill of Rights. In Article 1, Section 16, he defined “religion” as “the duty which we owe to our Creator… the manner of discharging… [of which] can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”
He intentionally legally defined “religion” to ensure it was protected from what he knew would interfere with it– the bureaucratic auspices of a federal government.
The framers followed his lead, making exceptions for oath taking recorded in four different sections of the Constitution. They did so in recognition of the Quakers’ opposition to oath taking as “a matter of conscience” and chose not to legally require them to take “oaths.” (Quakers were given the option of choosing “an affirmation” instead.)
Yet, this gesture in no way negated the framers’ nor the Quakers’ acknowledgment of God in legal proceedings. In fact, it only reinforced what they both believed—the unique and biblical principle that freedom is non-coercive.
George Washington understood this firsthand, emphasizing the importance of God and oath taking in his farewell address. He asked, “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths …?”
Nothing else– no other religion, religious or non-religious book, or records of testimony about any other claims about God, or no God– provides such specific instruction. No founder or framer cited verses from the Qur’an, claimed “Allahu Akbar” (although the right hand symbolizes Muslims and the left, non-Muslims); or referred to Allah, Buddha, Ganesha or Shiva.
Since America’s founding only the biblically rooted phrase, “So help me God,” is integrated throughout American jurisprudence.
This article was first published on July 12, 2015.