Quaker Presidents and the Oath of Office

A recent news story about the U.S. Presidential Oath of Office got me thinking about Quaker presidents. The story focused on the words “so help me God” that many presidents add to the official oath, and whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would follow suit. But I was intrigued by another, more basic question:  because Quakers do not believe in oaths or swearing, would a Quaker president be required to take the oath at all?

The official oath is short and to the point:  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. The Constitution requires every president to tender the oath before he or she may assume power.

No doubt, the founding fathers wanted to make sure presidents committed publicly to uphold the Constitution, a cornerstone of rule by law rather than by the whims of a leader. And yet taking such an oath could violate the beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends. As the August Query on Integrity and Personal Conduct says:

Friends believe that we are called to speak the truth. A single standard of truth requires us to conduct ourselves in ways that are honest, direct, and plain, and to make our choices, both large and small, in accord with the urgings of the Spirit. It follows that we object to taking an oath, which presupposes a variable standard of truth. Be true to your word.

Indeed, the oath’s alternative fourth word – “affirm,” rather than “swear” – was included in the oath by the founding fathers to accommodate Quakers and other religious groups that followed the biblical prohibition of swearing. As James says in the New Testament (James 5:12, KJV):  Above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.

Quakers have served as president of the United States twice: Herbert Hoover held the office from 1929 to 1933, and Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1974. Ironically, neither man choose to use the optional word affirm when they took the presidential oath. It is sometimes reported that Hoover said “affirm,” but a newsreel shows him using the phrase “solemnly swear.”

As is often the case with the Quaker Testimonies, the Integrity Testimony helps guide Friends through the collisions of principle with the rules of other institutions, the mores of society, and the practical demands of the moment.  Our guiding document, Faith and Practice, sums it up this way:

Integrity is a demanding discipline. We are challenged by cultural values and pressures to conform. Integrity requires that we be fully responsible for our actions. Living with integrity requires living a life of reflection, living in consistency with our beliefs and testimonies, and doing so regardless of personal consequences. Not least, it calls for a single standard of truth. From the beginning, Friends have held to this standard, and have often witnessed against the mainstream. When they suffered in consequence of their witness against secular order, their integration of belief and practice upheld them in adversity.

Perhaps, in the end, it matters less how a President takes the oath and more what kind of leader that person proves to be. No matter who stands up next January to swear, or affirm, to uphold the Constitution, let us hold them in the Light.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.