If there is a certain amount of confusion in the Supreme Court’s handling of the church-state separation question in various cases, there is even more confusion—and some downright distortion of fact—in Professor Morris’s “The Wall of Separation” (August/September issue).
Professor Morris, in mock perplexity, cites inconsistencies in public policy and asks “what we are to make” of a government which, while “being scrupulously careful to keep God out of the Constitution,” nevertheless employs chaplains to pronounce invocations and has “established a tradition by which each incoming President must take an oath of office on the Bible.…” As this reputable historian should know, no incoming President “must” take an oath of office on the Bible, any more than an incoming President “must” be a man. What is prescribed by the Constitution is an “Oath or Affirmation.” All our Presidents have taken the oath—and all our Presidents have been men—but it is wrong to say that the President or Vice-Président “must” be a man. The recent election campaign, with its Mondale-Ferraro ticket on the Democratic side, made more vivid the prospect of having a woman in the Oval Office some day soon. Before long we may see a campaign in which the prospect of an atheist in the Oval Office, a practicing Quaker, or some other kind of oath-refuser may also become more vivid.
The Founding Fathers, in choosing to make the oath optional, were making a revolutionary departure from the practice of previous governments around the world. To cite the oath (and ignore the affirmation) provision as a precedent for government support of religion is to turn American history on its head.