Monday, May 13, 2019
So help me God? How a little change in Congress points to a big change in the culture
Sometimes a news story deeply embedded in the print edition of a major newspaper, or one of those stories that doesn't rise to the top of the algorithmically driven kind of media feed you may observe, the reality is sometimes a small story turns out to be a really big story just as often as what might be at first presented as a big story turns out not to be so important after all. One of those little stories that upon reflection turns out to be a big story turns out to be an article that ran in Sunday's edition of The New York Times. The reporter is Catie Edmondson, the headline, "Democrats Use Gavel To Re-sculpt Traditional Oath."
It's on page 19 of the print edition of yesterday's edition of the Times. It's one of those pages that most people tend to skip over. The headline probably doesn't grab you by the throat, but even though the headline doesn't, the story turns out to be a lot more interesting, and important than maybe even the New York Times, and its editors understand. As Edmondson reports, "The witness rose from her seat, raised her right hand, and swore to tell the truth before Congress, but four words were missing, 'so help me God.'" As the reporter continues, "In the House of Representatives to the winner go the spoils, and Democrats, the new decision makers control everything, including what legislation gets a vote, and the minutia of the procedural choices such as whether witnesses must honor the traditional plea for divine aid. Democratic chairman and chairwoman of several key committees have deemed no such in treaty is necessary."
Now, before going further, let me just point out that it is not traditionally understood that an oath that includes the words, "So help me God" is really so much a claim for divine aid, so much as it is invoking God as a witness to the oath. Morally and theologically, that's a very different function, but it's also interesting that in our secular rising age many people can't be expected to have any clue why those traditional oaths had included words similar to, "So help me God." The Times article cites Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee who's the current Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sub-committee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties. He said, "I think God belongs in religious institutions, in temple, in church, in cathedral, in mosque, but not in Congress."
Responding to Republican complaints about leaving the words out, he said that Republicans were, "Using God." He continued, "And, God doesn't want to be used." Well, that's an interesting question, does God, or does God not want his name used in the making of oaths? Well, as we shall see, it has everything to do with whether, or not that we just said is true or false? Well, let's continue with the story from the New York Times. It turns out that at least some Democratic leaders of House committees, and sub-committees are deciding quite intentionally to leave out the words, "So help me God." Instead, when witnesses are sworn in, they are sworn in with an oath, they stop short of those words.
As you heard from Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee, that is intentional. They are intentionally trying to keep God out of the process. Again, I'll just quote. "I think God belongs in religious institutions, in temple, in church, in cathedral, in mosque, but not in Congress." That's an amazingly candid statement, telling God where he does and does not belong. Since Democrats regained the majority in the United States House of Representatives after the 2018 midterm elections, they began changing the rules. They began altering the procedures in keeping with the mentality, the worldview, and the political commitments of their own party.
Some of the changes they have brought include rather gender neutral language for the heads of committees, no longer chairman or chairwoman, but simply chair, and the New York Times points out by the way, that its style guide remains gender specific: chairman or chairwoman. No such thing as just a chair, but the Democrats in the house majority have decided that chair is just enough. But then, Edmondson writes, "The single change that has prompted the most ire is what Republicans contend is a concerted effort to omit the phrase, "So help me God" when administering witness oath. They point to examples on the Judiciary, Energy, and Commerce, and National Resources committees. Each person presiding over the panels has the power to decide to administer an oath as well as what that oath says."
Edmondson understands that there is controversy here. She writes, "No matter how small the teacup, such congressional tampers do get refracted through a partisan prism." The Center For Inquiry, a nonprofit group dedicated to fostering a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values cheered one committee, cheers, "Support for the constitutional separation of church, and state." Edmondson goes on to explain that some Democrats have, "Mounted ideological defenses of trunk hating the oath to avoid references to religion." She continues, "When Representative Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana interrupted Chairman Cohen to ask that witnesses be sworn in again, or at least be asked if they would prefer to recite the traditional oath, Representative Gerald Nadler of New York who heads the Judiciary Committee interjected 'We do not have religious tests.' He said, and move the hearing along."
She continues, "Such arguments have troubled republicans like Mr. Johnson, who has been on the front lines of efforts to make the oath invoke God again. He pulled Mr. Nadler aside on the House floor to discuss the issue, and directed his office to produce short video montages illustrating it. He believes in the cause. He went on to say, 'The intention behind it was to express the idea that the truth of what was being said was important not just in the moment, but would go into eternity, and someone was watching, and would ultimately be our judge. Congressman Johnson went on rightly to say, 'Some would call that mere symbolism, but too many of our founders, it was deeper than that into.'"
As you look at the New York Times article, what's really going on here? The Times really presents this as more, or less a partisan debate, an issue dividing Republicans and Democrats. Republicans saying that the words, "So help me God" should be used in the oath as has been the tradition, and democrats saying no. Now, there is more to the story, as you might expect. For one thing, you have those two parties moving in very different directions theologically. You have the Democratic Party increasingly, in recent years moving in a more overtly secular direction, and that's certainly true of many of the main voting constituencies of the Democratic Party, but at the same time, and what you might describe as an equal, and opposite pattern, you have many leading Republicans who are becoming ever more clear about the fact that they understand that the basic divide in the United States is not merely economic, or political, or sociological, but indeed theological.
And so, you have Republicans using God language, and many Democrats refusing to use the God language, and when you have a Republican majority in the Senate, well, they will determine the rules there and when you have a Democratic majority in the House, that House majority establishes the rule in that chamber, and so, as you have the New York Times article, it's a partisan divide. There are arguments on both sides, and there are people driven by apparently sincere beliefs who are taking both sides of the arguments. But, what's the history here? Well, the history is very interesting. As you go back to the Judiciary Act of 1789, that's going back to the very ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The Judiciary Act stipulated that judges should take an oath, but that act did not indicate the language of the oath.
If you go back to the late 18th century, most of the oaths are clearly made in God's name. Invoking God as a witness to the testimony that is being given, or to the assurances that are being pledged. It's also interesting to know that even in the Wake of the Enlightenment, especially in Britain, and in the United States, they're continued, the practice of taking oaths in God's name, and you can even consider the kind of language used in America's founding documents even about nature, and nature's God. It was believed that a supernatural authority had to be invoked as the ground of ultimate truth, and also as the sufficient grounding of human rights, and human dignity, and it goes back to a pattern in European civilizations, at least to the 14th and 15th centuries, where just about every lawful oath included the words similar to, "So help me God” or "In God's view" or "In God's sight” or "Standing before God I make this pledge."
The kind of pattern is very familiar, but actually, that pattern goes even further back, even the ancient Sumerians long before we had the written form of the Old Testament were making formal oaths, and they were swearing by their gods. Even as you look to the ancient Greeks, and the ancient Romans, you had people who were swearing oaths and making pledges by the gods given the polytheism of their own worldview, but what do we understand by looking at the Bible? What does the Old Testament say about oaths? What does the New Testament say about oaths? Well, for one thing we are told in the third commandment, we are not to take the name of the Lord our God in vain. It's a superficial understanding to believe that, that means we're not to curse using God's name, though, of course, it does mean that. More than that it was made as a command in the formal context of not invoking God's reputation in a way that was not consistent with his revelation, his word, and his character.
Using the name of the Lord in vain would be in effect, technically, most clearly presented in making an oath in God's name that one did not intend to keep, or claiming God is a witness to something that was not fully true. That would be more than anything else taking the name of the Lord in vain. In a more expansive sense, not taking the Lord's name in vain meant not impugning his character in any way, not invoking his name, even saying, "God did this” or "I know why God did this." That's the biggest circle of understanding that commandment, but at the very least, it was specifically pointing to the context of the taking of oaths, but then, you have some who will say that the people in the Old Testament were then not to take oaths, but that's not true.
Consider a verse like Deuteronomy 6:13, where God speaking through Moses told Israel, that the one true, and living God was a lone God, and that they were to worship only him, and they were to make vows only in his name, not in the name of any idol. Jesus himself, for example, in the Gospel of Matthew warns against making oaths hastily, or making an oath that one does not intend to keep, but even more interestingly, we turn to the book of Hebrews. In the book of Hebrews 6, there is the most important passage on exactly what we're talking about here. Now, the writer the book of Hebrews, in this case is talking about the absolute assurance of the covenant promises of God, but before we turn to explain the text, let's just read the text.
This is Hebrews 6:13-20, "For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, ‘Surely I will bless you and multiply you.’ And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”
Now, what's being set up there in Hebrews 6 is the argument about Jesus fulfilling that priesthood as our great high priest after the order of Melchizedek, pointing to a substitutionary atonement, and when here there is made reference to the fact that Jesus went to the inner place behind the curtain that's referring to the Holy of Holies, and making very clear that on the cross as our substitute, as the final sacrifice of blood, he completed, and fulfilled the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament. Once again, that explains why the veil separating the Holy of Holies from the interior of the temple was torn in two. The sacrificial system was completely over.
How does God make an oath? Big theology behind recent headlines
But for the purposes of considering this headline, the most fascinating part of this passage from Hebrews 6, is where we are told the obvious, but it's the kind of obvious we have to be told. That is this, "For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in their disputes an oath is final for confirmation." That's verse 16, and here we are told that human beings swear in God's name, one greater than ourselves, to make an attestation of the fact that what we are saying is true, but when God makes an oath, there is no one greater, and so, he makes it simply in his own name. It is one of those incredibly beautiful arguments from the book of Hebrews that helps to explain nothing less than the gospel, and the very character of God. God doesn't make an oath in anyone else's name, because it only makes sense to make an oath in the name of one who is higher. There is none higher than he, so God makes an oath in his own name, effectively saying, "So help me, me."
In American history even as the Judiciary Act of 1789 required an oath without giving the words, during the 1860s the United States Congress adopted the formal wording, which continues to this day, the formal wording is this, "I do solemnly swear." The individual can also say, "Affirm that I will support, and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign, and domestic, that I will bear true faith, and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation, or purpose of evasion, and that I will well, and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God." Those words, "So help me God” were officially injected by Congress in the 1860s into the formal oath by which all judges are sworn into office.
But furthermore, since the 1860s, this has become the actual oath that all formal federal employees swear upon entrance to their responsibilities, including the words, "So help me God." It is interesting to note that the only federal official whose oath does not formally, and legally include the words, "So help me God" is the oath taken by the President of the United States. Historians argue whether, or not George Washington invoked those words, anyway, when he became the nation's first president. There's good evidence that he did, but there's also a lack to say a very least of any kind of recording that would demonstrate this. The lack of a recording means we really don't know what every single president did in this case, until the modern advent of the radio transmission and broadcast, later television, of course, as you look to presidential inaugurations, and thus, it is safe to say that every president of the United States from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the present has added the words, "So help me God.”
The point made by Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson is actually also very important here and that is that the eternal timeframe is invoked by saying, "So help me God,” but, even more importantly, God as a witness to what is being said, and God ultimately as the judge as to whether, or not the oath was faithfully made, and faithfully executed. There's a reason why most in courts when a witness is sworn in for official testimony, a similar kind of oath, or affirmation is required. It is because invoking God's name in this context very clearly implies that even though there might not have been some other human witness to what is going to be attested, or claimed in that testimony, there is an eternal omniscient divine witness who eventually will judge the veracity of the one who was making the claim.
To use the words, "So help me God” in such an oath is at least a formal affirmation of the fact that a divine judge will eventually judge the trustworthiness of what is about to be said. As we wrap this story up, let's just consider the fact that there is deep theological meaning here. There is a big background that is largely missing from the cultural conversation. It is interesting that the New York Times saw this development as worthy of a major news story in the Sunday edition of the paper, but that points to the big issue behind this, which is the fact that we really are witnessing a secularization of our culture. We really are witnessing not so much just the influence of secularists, who ideologically want to get the United States government to avoid any reference to God, what we have here is the eclipse of God as the moral horizon, God as the constant assurance of the fact that the truth will become known, and that he will judge our hearts.
That's the biggest development here, not so much the fact that, "So help me God” is being left out of some congressional oaths is the fact that the consciousness, the awareness, and the fear of God are becoming extremely rare in our society without most people even noticing. The bottom line is this, a society aware of God, and in fear of God would not dare leave out those words. The fact that these words can now be left out rather casually, and that they can be described as merely a partisan divide tells us in reality a very great deal.
‘Secret science’ and the arrival of gene-edited babies
Next, there was another blockbuster article on the front page of the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, this headline: “Secret Science Made Gene-Edited Babies.” The article is by Preetika Rana, the subhead, Driven To Help Sick Parents and Make History Dr. He Ignored His Peers Warnings. Rana reports, "Two sisters entered the world prematurely one October night last year by emergency caesarean section. Staff of the Chinese hospital swallowed them in white laying them in incubators. The twins had a secret almost no one at the hospital knew. One man who did know was there waiting, a U.S. educated researcher, Dr. He Jiankui who had flown in to see them. The twins were his creations, the world's first known gene-edited human babies, and we are told he'd worked toward this for two years altering their genes as embryos to try making them resistant to their father's HIV infection. When the babies were born, he gave them pseudonyms Lulu and Nana, 'I'm 70% happy, and 30% uncertainty.'"
He said this in an English voice message we are told to a colleague that night. His unease proved pressure. We are told when the news broke peers in China and abroad condemned him for manipulating lives building blocks, using a relatively untested gene-editing tool. Well, the article goes on explaining these first gene-edited babies, and the articles on the front page of the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, because the Journal knows this is really big news, but behind this are some massive issues of worldview significance. The Journal recognizes that there's a great deal of controversy about these two babies, and the fact that this Chinese researcher Dr. He, educated in the United States had broken medical conventions, and ethical norms in proceeding with this, because he was absolutely determined, and what he said was a concern for health, but also, because of his personal, and national pride in China, wanting China to be first, he pressed ahead, even when he knew that this was in contravention of international norms.
As Rana reports, "It is illegal to implant a genetically modified human embryo in much of the Western world. The U.S. forbids the Food and Drug Administration from considering it." "China,” he tells us, "doesn't have a law, but a 2003 guideline, 'Genetic manipulation of human gametes, zygotes, and embryos for reproductive purposes is prohibited.'” The background to this is the development of a new scientific technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, which as the Journal says, "Has made ethics questions urgent." The tool acts as the journal like molecular scissors that target specific genes cutting them to prevent or cure diseases. The paper then summarizes the controversy where on one side you have those arguing it's too early to use the CRISPR technology on the genes of sperms, eggs, and embryos that would be human in this case, because the changes will be heritable. They will be passed on to subsequent generations.
There's another big ethical concern, and that's even reflected in these two babies, the first two gene-edited babies born. It turns out that Dr. He using this technology led to changes in the targeted genes, but the changes also took place in non-targeted genes, and the full impact of that is even today not understood. It might not be understood for a very long time, and there is a huge danger in that statement. When you change the human germline, you're not only changing the individual, or individuals whose genes you are directly manipulating. You're really changing the human equation going forward, at least that genetic equation, that genetic identity, because when human beings reproduce their genes are replicated in subsequent generations.
We already know that combining the genes of two different individuals just in normal human reproduction can lead to unpredictable results, but especially, when you're looking at the intentional manipulation of this genetic code, you have human beings in this case, the singular Chinese researcher assuming the authority to change the genetic identity of humanity going forward. Now, even as he was expected to become a great patriotic hero in China once this was known, it turned out that the international censure was enough for the Chinese government to censure this researcher, who by the way, has not been heard from recently. As Rana tells us, Chinese officials declared his experiment illegal, and in January of this year they detained him after a probe in which they alleged that he had forged an approval document, and acted "in pursuit of personal fame."
But, even as this researcher was in China, it turned out that not only had he been educated in the United States, but there were genetic scientists in the United States who had been his colleagues, even co-authors of papers who also knew what he was doing, and they did not report it. In Christian worldview analysis, there are two absolutely massive issues here. The first and most important is that issue of genetic manipulation, and genetic technology. It's not just the CRISPR technology, it's certainly not just this one researcher, and these two babies in China. It's the question of whether, or not human beings dare to tamper with the basic genetic code, especially since we don't know what that will mean. It's not so much that, that genetic code is sacrosanct, it is the fact that human beings are here tampering with the basic identity of humanity without any real knowledge of what the ultimate impact of that will be.
And, of course, we're also looking at the fact that this really could open up the idea of designer babies, and a brave new world of absolutely malleable humanity. That's very, very frightening, and for good reason, because when you change the genetic code, you could very well be changing human identity.
Science, scientism, and the big question of who will make the biggest moral decisions in the future
The second issue comes down to scientism. Scientism is a formal worldview in which science is the predominant if not the only means of knowledge, the only epistemology as we would say, and scientists thus have the ultimate priestly authority about what should, and should not happen. Scientism becomes the worldview that you see when you have scientists say, "This is a decision for scientists, non-scientists don't understand it. You need to stay out of the situation. Politicians, and rule makers, and others, they should stay out. This is a scientific issue, scientists will determine it, scientists will police it."
But, here's the problem, and here's what we need to see. Science has been incredibly effective in bringing about many changes for the good of humanity, but science has been disastrously ineffective, and incompetent at policing itself. You've had boundary after boundary established, policy after policy established, and yet you have people who transgress those policies, and very quickly you have the central driving energy of scientism come to the fore, and that is this: if it can be done, it must be done. If we don't do it, someone will do it. If we don't do it, someone will do it badly, so we must do it well. You have American scientists making that argument on genetic manipulation right now. Scientism answers virtually every question, including the most basic questions of human meaning, with not so much an if, but merely a when. "When we have the right policies in place, when we know enough we will of course go forward with this."
And, when you hear assurances from scientists that they will police themselves, just look at this headline story from this weekend's edition of The Wall Street Journal, because it is not warning us about what might happen, it's warning us about what has already happened, and even right now, may well be happening again.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.