Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Of Oaths and Offices

James Skillen


January 20, 1997

Inauguration Day According to Webster, an oath is a "formal calling upon God or a god to witness to the truth of what one says or to witness that one sincerely intends to do what one says." An office is a position of trust and responsibility that carries its own duties. The word still bears some of the older meaning of "calling—a calling from God.

Today, we continue to hold formal ceremonies when oaths are sworn by those taking office. Presidents and other officials often make reference to God, especially to God blessing America. But the bond between public officials and the people has worn thin because we have reduced politics to little more than a mutually self-serving relation between the people and their representatives. Could it be that the meaning of an oath—calling on God—and an office—a calling from God—cannot be sustained without a strongly shared public sense of accountability to the God who calls leaders into office and on whom they call when swearing their oaths?

On this presidential inauguration day, we find ourselves in the disheartening situation where both the President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives stand before us with tarnished reputations as violators of their oaths and offices. It is difficult to celebrate solemn ceremonies of oath-taking and office-entering when feeling weighed down by public corruption. The gravity of the situation arises precisely because the oath a leader takes before God is to serve the people. When the pledge to God loses its awesome meaning, the pledge to serve the people also loses its solemnity and can also be taken lightly.

How have we come to this? The cause goes beyond character weaknesses. The American experiment is fraught with an inner tension. The founders rejected the divine right of kings. They wanted a low-key chief executive and frequently elected representatives in a system highly checked and balanced by human restraints. At the same time, they wanted to retain a sense of divinely ordained limits to government, expressed most famously in the words of the Declaration of Independence about the people being endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.

The problem is that in this system no direct connection is recognized between God and government. While individuals may recognize an obligation to their Creator, public offices are accountable only to the people. An oath of office may contain god-talk, but the god whom presidents and other Americans refer to at so many inauguration and swearing-in ceremonies may be nothing more than a creature of our civil religion—a weightless projection of human vanity. According to Isaiah, God once railed against Israel, saying,

New moon and sabbath and
the calling of assemblies--
I cannot endure iniquity
and solemn assembly. . . .
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, correct oppression;
defend the fatherless,
plead for the widow.
Isaiah 1:12, 13, 16-17 (RSV)

America is not God's new Israel, and Americans en masse, celebrating their civil religion, cannot be expected to repent at hearing these words. But those who profess faith in the biblical God should certainly rend their garments and ask how they can help strengthen public acknowledgement that God, and not merely the people, holds governments accountable.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”