Religiously tinged oaths are a pretty common feature of American life. Anyone who has watched a courtroom drama on television has probably seen witnesses being sworn in on a Bible, vowing to tell the truth "so help me, God."
Elected officials are often sworn in with similar oaths. Interestingly, nothing in the Constitution requires this. Article II, Sect. 1 of the Constitution states that the president with take office with the following oath: "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."
That's it. No "So help me, God." No mandate that a Bible be used. These touches were added later. Today, many courts provide a secular oath for those who want one, and some politicians don't add "So help me, God" when being sworn in.
It's a system that protects everyone's right of conscience. So I have to wonder why an Iowa legislator wants to change that. Rep. Dawn Pettengill has proposed changing the Iowa Constitution to require lawmaker to swear "So help me, God" when being sworn in.
Honestly, some people simply have too much time on their hands. There are so many things wrong with this proposal it's hard to know where to begin.
For starters, it's clearly unconstitutional. You simply cannot compel someone to make a religious oath against his or her will. Pettengill's proposal is a backdoor "religious test" for public office. Such tests were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1961 case Torcaso v. Watkins.
More importantly, why would you want to force someone to take an oath like that if that person does not truly believe it? What do we gain by making people into hypocrites?
Asked about this, Pettengill replied, "Well, it's potentially offensive to me not to have it there. No, not potentially. It is offensive. We can all vote on it and decide if it should be in our constitution or not."
Rep. Pettengill needs to take a lesson from Roger Williams. The colonial-era religious liberty pioneer acted swiftly when Massachusetts authorities decided everyone should swear an oath of loyalty ending with "So help me, God."
Observed Williams, "A magistrate ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man." Doing so, he wrote, would cause the oath taker "to take the name of God in vain."
Amending a state constitution is series business. It should be done only when necessary. This is not one of those times.
I'm sure Iowa has more pressing matters to deal with than this dud of a proposal. Here's hoping Pettengill's misguided idea dies the quick death it deserves.