National Center for Constitutional Studies
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Having recently experienced the marriage of another child, I have once again been impressed with the importance of oaths or covenant-making as the very glue which holds a free people together. The trust we have in one another allows us to enjoy the freedom which accelerates progress. It is not by force that we do most things in a free society, but by free-will choices cemented by promises to each other, whether in marriage and family relationships, business relationships, or delegating individual authority to someone in political office to perform an act on our behalf.
We are at this time experiencing a test of this most fundamental procedure in our country. Our president has been formally charged with oath-breaking. We await a trial on those charges. Some say, in his defense, that this is not a very serious charge and should not carry a very severe penalty. Let us now examine the importance the Founders attached to oath-taking as an instrument of protection in our society.
Oath-Taking Required in God's Law
Dr. Skousen explains the historical significance of oath-taking:
"The oath was originally designed as the most solemn procedure for covenant-making. It involved not only a covenant with another person or society but also a covenant with God that the oath-taker would fulfill his promise. This is why the oath was always to be taken in the name of God and not in the name of anything else:
'Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name.' (Deut. 6:13)
"Once the oath was taken, it was to be given the highest priority in the life of the covenant-maker so that he made certain it was carefully fulfilled. This is the meaning of the third commandment:
'Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.' (Exodus 20:7)
"Oaths have been primarily reserved for the temple, for the giving of testimony, the coronation of kings and queens, the initiation into an important office, initiation into the military, and the confirming of some important official act." ( The Majesty of God's Law, 107)
America's Founders felt so strongly the need to bind the conscience of every elected official and appointed administrator in the United States to faithfulness in their duties that they incorporated this solemn ceremony in Article VI, Clause 3 of the Constitution:
"The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
Two Requirements Made Of Those Who Would Take an Oath
The Founders were emphatic that only those persons should be allowed to take the oath (and thus only those should be elected) who had a firm conviction of two basic religious principles: 1) The belief in a Supreme Being, and 2) a belief in a future life where rewards or punishments would be meted out for how well we performed in this life. Otherwise, the oath would mean nothing.
Founder James Iredell said it this way:
"According to the modern definition of an oath, it is considered a "solemn appeal to the supreme being, for the truth of what is said, by a person who believes in the existence of a supreme being and in a future state of rewards and punishments according to that form which will bind his conscience most.".
Iredell went on to say that the actual procedure of oath taking could vary depending on a person's religion. Hence a Christian would use the Bible, a Jew the Torah, a Moslem the Koran. Even a faithful Hindu, whose most sacred act is touching the foot of a priest, could take the oath in that manner. The overriding requirement however would be that the person have the two basic beliefs mentioned above. Otherwise, an oath would be meaningless. Iredell even said that the threat of perjury would not be very effective if a person did not believe he would one day have to face his Maker. Said he:
"It is, however, necessary that such a belief should be entertained, because otherwise there would be nothing to bind his conscience that could be relied on; since there are many cases where the terror of punishment in this world for perjury would not be dreaded...." ( The Making of America , p.664)
No Credibility If These Religious Beliefs Are Missing
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of an incident in early America where a person absent these beliefs was not allowed to take an oath to tell the truth in court. Said he:
"While I was in America, a witness who happened to be called at the Sessions of the county of Chester (state of New York) declared that he did not believe in the existence of God or in the immortality of the soul. The judge refused to admit the evidence, on the ground that the witness had destroyed beforehand all the confidence of the court in what he was about to say."
In a note de Tocqueville added:
"The New York Spectator of August 23, 1831, related the fact in the following terms: "... The presiding judge remarked that he had not before been aware that there was a man living who did not believe in the existence of God; that this belief constituted the sanction [in law, that which gives binding force] of all testimony in a court of justice; and that he knew of no case in a Christian country where a witness had been permitted to testify without such belief." ( The Five Thousand Year Leap , p. 101)
As Washington pointed out in his Farewell Address: "Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?"
Can Violating An Oath Be Overlooked or Excused?
In the present crisis in Washington, some of the President's defenders are being heard to say that the actions of President Clinton are only private in nature and have not subverted our system of government, hence, do not merit the President being impeached and removed from office.
Dr. Alan Keyes answers these defenders (mainly Mr. Charles Ruff, the president's attorney) from the Founders position:
"And despite the fact that Mr. Ruff says this doesn't subvert our system of government, in reality, all republican government-that is, all government that operates on the principle of representation, where the people do not directly administer the government or make the law - all such government relies heavily on the integrity and sanctity of oaths. It is very important that the people you appoint take an oath to be faithful to your trust. If oaths mean nothing, then a republic -- that is, a system of government based on representation -- can't really operate, because you can't trust your representatives. And if you can't trust your representatives, you ought to do everything yourself, which means that Republics don't work. So it precisely subverts the entire system of government -- top to bottom -- if oaths mean nothing.
"So when Charles Ruff says an impeachable offense has got to be an attack on our system of government, I agree with him. But if the president has forsworn himself, if he has sworn falsely, if he has made mock of his oath, then he has subverted the entire system of representative government -- by definition. And that is as clear as day.
"Would you contemplate that for a minute? In this very important and grave matter that has to do with removing the president from office, the Founders established a clear difference between the two bodies. The difference they established between the House and Senate, in order to raise the level of integrity and seriousness in the Senate vote, is shown by the fact that they put the Senators on oath or affirmation.
"Does that tell you something about how important they thought oaths were? It does; it illustrates it perfectly. So what happens if oaths mean nothing? The whole system falls to pieces. And indeed, in the Federalist Papers and elsewhere you will find several reiterations on the part of the people who wrote those papers of the fact that among those things that give confidence that representative government can operate at all are the things that guarantee that people are going to act with some integrity. And among those the most important is the sanctity of oaths.
"It is the sanctity of oaths that is directly assaulted by Mr. Clinton's conduct, and by the effort to defend that conduct. And therefore it constitutes not just an assault on some specific little portion of our system of government; it constitutes an assault on the very bedrock foundation of the integrity of the entire system. They are not just assaulting something tiny and small, or some tiny little room of the house that might be damaged. They are going right for that which constitutes one of the main pillars of the whole thing -- the sanctity of oaths.
"So when Ruff says that he doesn't think that the president did anything to assault the system, he is either blind or rotten with corruption. I don't know which. But if you have any knowledge at all it is hard to miss the importance that was placed by the Founders on the sanctity of oaths. And I don't see how he could have read the Constitution and not been struck by the fact that they specifically put the Senators on oath when it comes to voting on the matter of conviction -- when they are to determine guilt or innocence. And if they didn't think that oaths were somehow a bedrock foundation of integrity, why would they have made this apparently useless gesture?
"So when the president perjures himself -- that is, forswears himself and takes a false oath -- he is directly assaulting not just an element of the Constitution. He is assaulting the very pillar of integrity for our entire system of self-government.
"And if that isn't an impeachable offense, Mr. Ruff, then the standards you yourself have established you are willing also to deny. Now, the Republicans have made that point with respect to the court system a few times; I think that they need to make it with respect to the whole system of government. He is not only subverting the judicial branch's integrity when he forswears himself under oath. Our Senators and Congressmen also take an oath, don't they? The president takes an oath. And do you know who else takes an oath, where it is very, very important to us that they respect the sanctity of oaths? The people who have the weapons! Our soldiers also take an oath. And on the day that the soldiers decide that that oath is as worthless as Bill Clinton thinks his oath is, what might they do with those weapons?
"Soldiers are under discipline, and we have to thank God for that. And we have to thank God that they respect their oaths, and respect, therefore, that discipline. This is something that we need to be thankful for as free citizens of a free society, because republics die when soldiers no longer respect their oath to respect the rights of the people and the constitution. Republics are killed by such soldiers.
"So if we set the example in the civilian sphere that says "oaths mean nothing," what effect will that have in terms of the oath that our military people are taking? If we are a society in which we raise up generations with the view that oaths don't mean anything, what will then bind the conscience of our soldiers in the military, when they take an oath to respect the Constitution and want to turn their power, their military power, against our liberty. We are in great danger if we let these people do what they are doing.
"Mr. Ruff wants to pretend that oath-breaking, and the destruction of the sanctity of oaths is not fundamental to our system. It is fundamental to the trust and integrity of the people that we put in government, and it is also fundamental to the safety of our people in terms of things like the military oath. Which is why Mr. Clinton needs to be held accountable, and why I agree with the argument that Ruff made -- which is that to be impeachable an offense must be against the system of government. But to break your oath, and thereby to destroy the society's sense of the sanctity of oaths, absolutely and fundamentally undermines our whole system of government. And therefore by the very criterion that Ruff has established Clinton must be impeached and he must be removed from office. It is very simple." (Remarks of Dr. Alan Keyes, December 10, 1998)
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