“So Help You God?”

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“Do you promise that your testimony will be the truth, the whole truth—so help you God?”

I was sworn in as an expert witness at a trial last week (I’m asked to do so several times each year). Once again, I was asked to swear to a God I don’t believe in. I said yes (it’s part of the job), but doing so always makes me cranky (and having to wear a suit while saying it doesn’t help my mood).

Some U.S. courts ask you to simply swear or affirm to tell the truth, but I’ve always been asked to swear to God. The Constitution specifies an oath you can take if you don’t want to mention a deity (for Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example). But if you ask for a different oath, or answer evasively, you call attention to yourself and the issue. This can undermine your credibility, especially with a religious judge or jurors.

That’s because of America’s God-ism—the assumption that believing in God is the norm, while anything else has to be asserted. God-ism is like racism and sexism—believing that the norm is to be white or to be male. People who say that such assumptions are no big deal should recall the fuss about challenging the traditional use of “he” or “men” to refer to “people” in the 1970s.

A common complaint back then was “Why do you have to add gender or race to every conversation?” As if assuming a normative gender or race wasn’t doing so.

The same is now true of religion. Non-believers wouldn’t have to keep asserting our non-belief if society didn’t constantly assume that belief is normal, and that religion deserves a privileged position whenever possible (think taxes, zoning, and exemptions from anti-discrimination law, for starters).

Of course people are free to believe what they want, but enshrining these beliefs in a secular government (and mass media, educational system, and entertainment industry) compromises the entire enterprise.

And just like whites didn’t understand how hurtful pervasive racist assumptions are for blacks, people of faith don’t appreciate how often non-believers are confronted with the aggressive expression of religion in (supposedly secular) public life:

· God is featured on all paper money
· Government officials and media spokespersons vow that people in trouble (e.g., soldiers, victims of Katrina) are in “our prayers”
· Government meetings and public functions are started with prayers; prayer breakfasts are held in government or corporations
· All corporate and government employees are allowed to wear religious jewelry while serving the public; try that with a silver vulva pendant or a pin satirizing Christianity
· Taxpayers fund chaplains and religious services in the military; religious proselytizing is the current norm in America’s military academies
· The religious rituals of athletes, and religious placards of fans, are televised without tolerating equivalent non-religious behavior or expression
· Religious leaders are included in government or community committees without similar invitations to humanists, atheists, etc.

The most painful part is that this is all considered normal. It isn’t. And it shouldn’t be—whether you’re a believer or not. Because America was built as a radical, secular nation in which no religious belief would be favored or disadvantaged. And that includes the lack of religious belief altogether.

A surprising number of Americans believe that God is mentioned in the Constitution. Not so. Despite this, recent Presidents (even “strict constructionist” conservatives like Ronald Reagan) have now added “so help me God” to their inaugural oath—by personal whim (which is how they dismiss judicial rulings they don’t like).

So what’s the big deal? After all, the court wants me to tell the truth, I’m committed to telling the truth, so what does it matter how I convey my assent? That’s simple. Ask your average Christian witness who plans to tell the truth to swear by Satan. That’s the level of disrespect “so help you God?” has for millions of non-believers.

And that’s the truth.

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