The Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry

Join / Donate

All Forums > News and Current Events >

News and Current Events

Nov 28 2005
Responses to Challenge of finding God in Constitution

Responses to challenge of finding God in Constitution

EDITOR'S NOTE: In April, Herb Silverman, a professor of mathematics at the College of Charleston and president of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, challenged readers to find God in the U.S. Constitution. Skip Johnson, an author and former Post and Courier religion writer, took on the challenge in a column in the Oct. 2 issue of Faith & Values, and Silverman wrote his rebuttal in last week's issue.

Next Sunday, Faith & Values will tell you Skip Johnson's reply to Silverman's rebuttal.

Faith & Values invited readers to voice their opinions as to which writer made the better case. Here are the responses:

I read with great interest Skip Johnson's response to Herb Silverman's $1,000 promise if God or Jesus can be found in the Constitution. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Johnson and commend him for his thoughts.

Barbara Gilchrist



Skip Johnson should not get the $1,000 because he did not demonstrate that he was able to find God or Jesus in the U.S. Constitution. His claim that the phrase 'oath or affirmation' implied 'God' or 'Jesus' does not pass muster. The framers of the Constitution were intelligent people. They said what they meant and meant what they said. If they had wanted 'God' or 'Jesus' to be involved in the founding of this country, they would have written, 'this government is founded, not on 'We The People,' but on God and Jesus and as a Christian nation, Christian beliefs take precedence over other religious ideas.' But, as Dr. Silverman has pointed out, our Constitution is a godless Constitution. As far as oaths are concerned, Skip claims, 'Clearly, the Constitution's writers went out of their way to include - almost require! - a specific religious act.' This statement is not supported. The framers included an oath in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution: 'I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.' (PERIOD!) If the framers had wanted God included, they would have written, 'So help me God,' as part of this oath. They obviously did not want any reference to a deity in our Constitution and all the nitpicking, grasping for straws and irrational claims cannot make it so. At that time, the Congress and the (chief) executive did not plan to work on Sunday, so it was not counted in the 10-day period for a bill return, but this does not put 'God' or 'Jesus' in the Constitution.

The inaugural speech by the deist George Washington and the use of the deist terms 'Nature's God' and 'Creator' in the Declaration of Independence still does not put God or Jesus in the Constitution. The later religious graffiti on buildings and money are not part of our Constitution and only demonstrate how far this country has strayed from the intentions of the main founders of this country.

Bill Upshur

Johns Island


I read the article and Skip Johnson makes sense to me. Please let Herb Silverman know I think he should pay the $1,000 to Skip Johnson.

Doug Quinn

Goose Creek


I feel Herb Silverman should pay up, just because he feels the words in 'the year of our Lord' is ritualistic to him, to us it is a reference to our one and only Savior Jesus Christ, who died for our sins, and provided a way of salvation that if we accept, will lead us to one day meeting our maker.

As Mr. Silverman has done time and time again, he has found specific passages in the Bible to state his point, however, fails to review the entire context of what was being said, which has always been completely 180 degrees from his point. This is just another example of Mr. Silverman's wishy-washy approach to make the words and sayings however he wants to see/hear them to fit his platform!

Saying that Mr. Silverman can think whatever he wants; however, once he dies, there is no 'do-over,' so what if you are wrong? I would rather be wrong about heaven than arrogant here on Earth and end up in hell!

David Geddings



Skip it Skip, you obviously refuse to read Article VI of our Constitution. No religious test means no religious claims for any alleged deity by any name - god, gott, Jehovah - none shall be required for officeholders to be acknowledged. You ought to pay Herb or me $1,000 for training you to read law.

Preventing another crusade or religious war was paramount on the minds of lawmakers in 1787.

Madison, Monroe and Jefferson fought hard against established Colonial church lobbies for the 'Virginia statute' along with our First Amendment.

Our nation was founded by people of character and sacred honor to duty, NOT CHURCH. Our continuing American Revolution is forever vigilant against the Church of England and any other theocracy.

Pious, incompetent rubes for sectarian prominence gave us an illegal religious motto on our coins 96 years ago. McCarthyistic prayers to the flag are the problem while an entanglement with the core concept of religion, an alleged generic deity name.

The law of our land is to be improved as an inclusive document, as we have added race, sex and other classes to protect in civil rights from civil wrongs.

Faith and values are protected sentimental options, while science and facts are not subject to church polling wrongs.

Give thanks to the reasonable minds of honorable law givers, not lords of barbaric antiquities for our secular and 'godless' Constitution.

Larry Carter Center



It's obvious that Skip Johnson makes the case for God in the Constitution (10/02 Faith & Values). What is not obvious is that Mr. Silverman will do the right thing and own up to his commitment. No more excuses, Mr. Silverman! You challenged and you lost. Admit your mistake and move on. Mr. Johnson, incredibly clear and concise, is right-on with his arguments and should handily receive the $1,000.

Laura Meier



The Constitution is the governing instrumentality of the nation. As such, it specifies that no religious affiliation may be required of any governing official and, in addition, no law may require any individual to have such an affiliation. This is stated in Article VI and also in Articles I and X of the Bill of Rights. There is no reference to God or Jesus (two separate entities) contained in the Constitution. Therefore, the conditions of the wager have not been met.

A reference to the year of our Lord in this connection has about as much weight as crediting the paper that the Constitution was written on as the source of its governing power. It is out of the context of the document. If there truly exists a creator of the cosmos, this entity would not recognize or respond to any of the appellations that are so freely bandied about to exploit the god-hypothesis.

Finally, if absolute proof that God does not exist was discovered, the people of the United States would not be obliged to tear up the Constitution.

Max Cohen

Dublin, N.H.


I believe that Mr. Johnson defended his position very clearly and stated the case with articulation and grace. While I ultimately must disagree with his position, I think he did most assuredly earn the $1,000 he was promised for an excellently crafted argument.

D. Keyes



When Herb Silverman issued a challenge to anyone who can find 'God' mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, many people probably thought the $1,000 prize would be easy to claim. After all, over the past few years, several famous television commentators (who honestly should have known better) have mistakenly claimed that the phrase 'one nation Under God' or the statement that 'America is a Christian Nation' appear in the Constitution.

As Skip Johnson unintentionally shows in his recent Post and Courier piece (10/2), this is quite far from the truth. Although Johnson claims to be finding 'God' in the Constitution and claiming the monetary prize, the weakness of his evidence only goes to further support Silverman's original contention: The Constitution of the United States is a secular document and makes no mention of God or a role for religion in government.

Johnson does not limit himself to discussing the Constitution. Interestingly, the very existence of the other examples he presents seems to argue against his point. After all, he is able to refer to various famous Americans and other documents which unambiguously refer to a deity or religion. That it was included so explicitly in other documents and speeches of the day makes it even more mysterious why the only clear discussion of such topics in the Constitution is the prohibition on the establishment of a national church. Mysterious, that is, unless one believes it was not an accident, but rather the intended purpose of the authors to steer clear of religion in the establishment of their new government.

Of course, Johnson argues that 'God' is mentioned there, included implicitly in the word 'oath.' As he acknowledges, the word 'oath,' at least today, can be used to mean a promise outside of any religious context. His claim that in 1787 it necessarily meant 'an oath to God' is undercut by one simple fact: The oath to be taken by the president is included in the Constitution and, as written, it is entirely secular in nature. This seems like rather convincing evidence that the word 'oath' here did not have any hidden religious meaning.

Johnson also argues that there is religious significance to the fact that the Constitution excepted Sunday as a day on which the president had to return a bill to Congress. Of course, this is not entirely unrelated to the fact that Sunday is the Sabbath for many Christians. However, allowing Sunday as an exception here falls far short of the sort of official affirmation of religion that many seem to believe the Constitution contains. It certainly does not qualify as 'finding God' mentioned explicitly. It is merely a rather practical acknowledgment of the fact that in a country with freedom of religion and so many Christians, it is unreasonable to expect the same sort of business efficiency on Sunday as on the other days of the week.

Many of Johnson's other points are essentially irrelevant to the original question, but perhaps deserve a brief mention here as well. Johnson points out that U.S. currency has the words 'In God We Trust' printed on it. Of course, this is not evidence of 'God' being mentioned in the Constitution, but it should also be noted that these words were not included on any U.S. currency until the 19th century and not on paper money until the 20th century, and so have even less bearing on what was intended by the framers in 1787. Johnson also chooses to quote Jefferson (from the Declaration of Independence). His quotes are rather selective, though, since he fails to mention Jefferson's famous letter in which he coins the powerful metaphor, 'Wall of Separation between Church and State,' and makes it clear that he really did believe the U.S. government was created as an entirely secular entity. (In fact, it may also be of interest to note that Jefferson was the only president thus far who did not voluntarily add the words 'so help me God' to his inaugural oath.) It is also odd that Johnson fails to find any quotes from James Madison, who is generally recognized as the author of the U.S. Constitution itself. Madison, though himself a Christian, made his opinion clear when he argued that it was unconstitutional for a president to call for a national (nondenominational) day of prayer. Like Jefferson, Madison believed in the 'wall of separation.'

I hope that some other Post and Courier readers have attempted to respond to Silverman's challenge and were surprised to see no explicit mention of religion or God in this nation's founding document. The fact is, even though a very large percentage of Americans are extremely religious, our government is secular. This is in no way a contradiction. The point of a secular government is not to prevent Americans from being religious, but rather to stay neutral on matters of religion so that we really have freedom of religion free from government coercion. That those who wish to argue otherwise must resort to using the dictionary definition of 'oath' from 1787 is a good indication that their evidence is very weak indeed.

Alex Kasman

Associate Professor

Department of Mathematics

College of Charleston


The distant reference to Lord, or to an oath, in the Constitution, was an inescapable CULTURAL tradition at that time in any 'European' (by extension) society. The usual reference is that 'it was in the ether,' in the habitual, knee-jerk response in speech rather than in committed belief.

For example, we still have the days of the week named for old gods, but when we utter 'Thursday,' we do not think of honoring Thor? What of Wodan or Tew or Freyr or Saturn? That reference to Sunday, OK, it's not a big stretch to claim that a day of rest comes under science, a body can only take so much strain from relentless work.

More than 200 years of evolving cultural tradition and habit separate today's society from the writing of the Constitution. It must be interpreted in the light of reason.

Do I worship when I say 'goodbye' - God-Bide-with-thee, or am I following a tradition of the culture?

Anne-Rosemarie Lieb

Lackawaxen, Pa.


Johnson loses.

To imply or 'hints' of a G-d in the Constitution are not enough to state that G-d is in the Constitution.

It is amazing how so many people knew what the framers of the Constitution intended to do.

Mr. Johnson must have terrific insight when he states, 'just as clearly, they did not want a godless Constitution.' How does he know, especially when one considers that Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Washington were deists? Furthermore, there are treaties during the terms of Adams and Madison that specifically state that we are not a Christian nation.

Johnson only offers conjecture and supposition to make his case, but no facts. Sundays were left out because you could not do business on Sunday - no one was around. 'Oath' does not state nor mean G-d. The Declaration of Independence is not the Constitution.

Silverman wins.

Ralph Sheffey



In reference to Herb Silverman's $1,000 challenge to find God in the Constitution:

I don't believe that Silverman should have to pay Johnson $1,000, as most of his 'findings' actually come from outside of the Constitution (e.g., Declaration of Independence, Washington's inaugural address, currency, etc.). The fact that most of his argument focuses on words other than those found in the Constitution suggests that Johnson is grasping at straws to find a connection that is tenuous at best.

Where Johnson does look at the actual words of the Constitution, his inferences are flimsy. Take, for example, the word 'oath.' While it's true that it can be used in a religious context, the word does not preclude a secular meaning. (One need only look at examples of the many oaths we undertake to see this.)

Jacqueline H. Egan



Mr. Johnson obviously could not prove his point, as he had to devote more than half of his response to parts of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington's inaugural address, congressional sessions, government meetings, our currency and mottoes. Then toward the end of his article, he asks the question, 'Does it really seem like the people who wrote the Constitution intended to keep God out of it?' The key word here is 'seem.' It seems to him they did not intend to keep God out of the Constitution. It seems to Mr. Silverman that they did intend to keep God out of the Constitution.

Wyman Hoten



Atheist Herb Silverman opens his big mouth insinuating that there is no GOD or JESUS in the Constitution. He needs to pay up!!

Michael L. Ayers


Sep 28 2007

I'm adding a note to this old thread to correct a mistake I may have made above. In my letter, I wrote that all US presidents except perhaps Jefferson have voluntarily included the phrase "So Help Me God" to their oath of office. I guess I'd heard this repeated lots of times and had no reason to doubt that it was true.

Now, however, I have heard from Ray Soller who informs me that this may just be a modern myth. I'm hoping he will be able to write in with more information, but he seems to have done quite a bit of research on this topic. The most intriguing piece of evidence to me is the rant published in 1894 by a devout Christian complaining about the fact that presidents do not mention God in their oaths. You can read the whole thing in the Google Books version but here is an exerpt:

Every President, after George Washington and before R B Hayes, took the presidential oath without an appeal to God, omitting the very essence of the oath. Rev. A. M. Milligan, D.D., wrote Abraham Lincoln before his inaugural in 1861, and also before his second inaugural in 1865, asking him, in deference to the consciences of the Christian people of the land, to take tthe presidential oath in the name of God. He replied both times that God's name was not in the Constitution, and he could not depart from the letter of that instrument. The Bible formula is distinct, "Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and shall swear by his name," We know that since RB Hayes, our Presidents have added to the oath " So help me God." But that is extra-constitutional. The framers of our Constitution took the Bible oath, cut off the name of God and inserted the mutilated oath into our fundamental law. Is that wrong? Again, the Constitution says: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under these United States." If by a "religious test" they had meant "denominational test," we would say, Amen. But it is not so. The intention of this provision cannot be misunterstood. "It was intended to so frame the compact of government that no irreligious man would be ineligible to office --- that even an avowed and practical infidel or atheist might have no obstacle in the way of reaching the highest court of the land." They intended to relegate the question of moral and religious qualifications to the voters. As Winthrop said: "The presumption is that the eyes of the people will be upon the faithful of the land."

Moreover, Soller suggests that the famous story that Washington said "so help me God" is a myth created by Washington Irving and his friends in the mid 19th century. He has quite a bit of evidence to back this up and hope is able to log in soon and post some of it here for interested site visitors.


Oct 1 2007

If you visit a number of different sites on the internet, you'll find an almost countless number of instances where George Washington is said to have added "So help me God" to his presidential oath during his first inauguration on April 30, 1789. In the past, representatives at the Library of Congress, when pressed for a primary source to support their contention regarding Washington's oath, would cite Douglass Southall Freeman's book, "George Washington: A Biography," published in 1948. Freeman, when narrating Washington's Inauguration, appears to back up his statement that GW said SHMG with a footnote citing an obscure Tobias Lear letter of May 3, 1789, sent to George Augustine Washington, who was residing at Mount Vernon. As far as the Library of Congress was concerned that was good enough for them.

The letter was said to reside at the Duke University Library. Back in November 2005, I quite fortunately obtained a copy of the Lear letter, and, to make a long story short, researchers at the LoC now know they are mistaken.

Further research shows, in spite of the widespread notion to the contrary, there is no contemporary historical evidence showing that George Washington added anything to his presidential oath of office, or that any of Washington's successors for the next 150 years actually recognized adding "So help me God" as a traditional part of the inauguration. This American legend made its debut in 1854, sixty-five years after the event, in the book, "The Republican Court; or, American Society in the Days of Washington," by Rufus W. Griswold. Griswold may have picked up this bit about GW saying SHMG from Washington Irving. However, neither of them ever disclose just how they came by their version of Washington's oath.

Similarly, the belief that every president, or nearly every president has uttered SHMG is absolutely false. The first president, who is known to have added those words to his presidential oath, is Chester Allen Arthur. He appended SHMG to his oath when he was sworn into office on Sept. 22, 1881 after the death of President Garfield. Later on, several other presidents during the first third of the 20th Century adopted this practice. The last President, who did not use those words, was Herbert Hoover. One may say that a President can choose to add these words to the presidential oath, but it is a clear violation of the Constitution, and surely not a good idea for a judicial official to prompt the President to succumb to a religious test of office. This, unfortunately, has been the unbroken practice since FDR's Inaugural Ceremony in 1933, and there is absolutely no early record that this practice started with George Washington.

A customary place for a President to acknowledge God's role in our national affairs is the Inaugural Address. In deed all Presidents with one exception have done so. Washington's second Inaugural Ceremony, in contrast to his first (where Chancellor Livingston, a fellow Mason, most likely, requested the Bible; where Madison drafted Washington's Inaugural Address; and where Congress laid out the concluding church service), was one which Washington managed completely. There was no planned church service, or official prayer. Furthermore, there were no reports of a Bible being present, or Washington saying, "So help me God."

The practice of adding "So help me God" to federal oaths outside of the courtroom began in 1862 with the Iron-clad Test Oath during the Civil War. It was supposed to keep Confederate sympathizers from participating in the Federal Government. It may well have been a counter-measure designed to offset the psychological impact that followed when Jefferson Davis repeated "So help me God" as he took his oath of office for the Confederacy. It wasn't until President Arthur's administration that the federal oath was restored to a degree of normalcy, and stripped of its designed Civil War anti-Confederate hostilities. As you probably are well aware, Congress preferred to retain the "So help me God" anomaly.

The notion that George Washington, as the President of the Constitutional Convention, would, at any subsequent time, disregard the concerted effort of the convention delegates and spatchcock the presidential oath is an unsubstantiated Orwellian legend.

Two very contrasting videos about whether GW said SHMG can be seen on the internet. The first is a short musical ballad, "'So help me God' - he didn't say it," sung by Michael Newdow that can be accessed at . The second video is sponsored by the Senate Historians Office under the direction of the Senate Rule Committee. A video icon, "'So Help Me God"' A historical look at the Inaugural Ceremonies 1789-2005," can be found in the lower right hand corner on their website (You only have to view the first two or three minutes of either video to get their message.)

A lengthy summary discussing the results of the ongoing research into this topic "So Help me God in Presidential Oaths" can be found at a site maintained by Matthew Goldstein. (See

Return to News and Current Events Forum
Return to Discussion Home

Webmaster: Alex Kasman 2016