There is a famous Washington tableaux in the National Capitol. No, not George Washington crossing the Delaware. It is a repeated public ritual resulting in slight variations of the great classic of our time: seven corporate executives in 1994 standing behind a witness table before a congressional committee in Washington, D.C., arms raised, taking the oath “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God,” after which they testified that they did not believe that nicotine in the cigarettes they manufacture is addictive.
Documents later made public showed that they lied and knew it at the time from their own secret documents. No perjury charges followed.
The oath to godly truth has been repeated a number of times since the famous image and in the same classic pose. The most recent Enronesque ritual was performed by executives from WorldCom, the corporation that cooked its books to the tune of $3.8 billion dollars. They took their place before the congressional witness table and swore to “to tell the truth…and the whole truth, “so help you God.” Two of whom then took the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and declined to testify.
I have no problem with the Fifth Amendment, which has been a bedrock protection against what throughout history has been psychic duress and torture used by powerful authorities to extract confessions. As a young police reporter, I know that in those ancient days of my youth before the Miranda decision, the cellar of local police stations were often scenes of “interrogation” that would not do for those with weak stomachs.
Historically, more than one confession was forced by the Spanish Inquisition to falsely “confess” their guilt of heresy. When Galileo was called before the Vatican Inquisition for the heresy of suggesting the possibility that the earth moves around the sun rather than the way around, the eager torturer asked the Head Inquisitor whether to give Galileo the treatment. He was told, “No. Just show him the instruments.” Galileo by then a sick old man who feared he might not survive the torture, “confessed.” But inwardly he knew and now the world knows, that he was right and his inquisitors were wrong.
We need the Fifth Amendment. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the false-swearing corporate crooks are innocent.
Almost worse, the practice has infected our politics. I freely confess that I have taken His name in vain when I hit my thumb with a hammer. But unprovoked by bleeding thumbs, an ungodly number of our politicians wear God on their sleeves as a campaign ploy. They are The Big Name Droppers.
When the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance was criticized by an atheist, congressional self-righteousness reached a new level of hysteria. They were not inclined to bring perjury charges against the tobacco executives who lied under oath and got away with it. But the politicians’ reaction to an atheist exercising his constitutional right was more like the reaction to destruction of the World Trade Towers.
We had the televised image of the House and Senate rushing to repeat en masse the Pledge of Allegiance, fairly shouting the controversial phrase “under God.” If the entire membership of the Congress was involved, at least one of them, Rep. James Traficante, Jr., has been convicted for racketeering, bribery, and fraud. And if past congresses are a measure, the odds are that the “under God” shouters in the televised Pledge included an ungodly number of crooks, adulterers, and scoundrels.
The passionate charge that by not putting “under God” in the Pledge we were insulting our “forefathers” overlooked the origin of the “under God” in the pledge. It had nothing to do with “our forefathers,” having been inserted by Congress in 1954, 100 years after the Pledge became public.
The Pledge originated with a Baptist minister who composed it for a Columbus Day flag raising ceremony in 1892 – after the minister had been fired by his Boston church because of his socialist sermons. As for “our forefathers,” at least three of them (Jefferson, Franklin, and Thomas Paine) were deists who believed God created the universe and left the rest up to its occupants, including Earthlings, themselves, a concept that would send our contemporary members of Congress into another patriotic frenzy.
Furthermore, most of our “forefathers” were moved more by their fear of horrific tragedies from Church-State partnerships throughout history than they were by the British tea taxes (which had been withdrawn anyway). The original Constitution writers knew that one’s view of God and religion is personal, not governmental.
That’s why the separation of Church and State is in the Constitution. Lincoln’s great Second Inaugural noted that in the American Civil War both the Union and the Rebels invoked on their side and with Lincoln’s simple common sense said that God could not grant both them their wishes. God help Abraham Lincoln if today he faced the Congress to say the idea of God or no God does not belong to the White House or the Congress or, for that matter, cbhurches.
A 19th century uncle of Charles Darwin (who, incidentally, was a profoundly religious man) conducted a calculation that he felt proved prayers to God were personal, not governmental. He knew that millions of subjects of the British Empire regularly prayed, “God Save the King.” Mr. Darwin assumed that if this made a difference, British kings would have better-than-average longevity and health. They didn’t. Prayers are undeniably meaningful for individuals. The more they are invoked for public purposes, the less convincing they become.
When politicians habitually invoke God in their campaigns and debates I have an impulse to grab my wallet. And when corporate leaders take their oath to tell the truth “so help me God” followed thereafter by their by lying, or they use God and the Pledge as a publicity plus, I am reminded of that great Irishman, Mr. Dooley, and his straight man, Mr. Hennessey. Dooley and Hennessey were the creation of the 19th century American humorist, Peter Finley Dunne. In one episode, straight man Hennessy asks:
“What d,ye think iv th’ man down in Pinnsylvanya who says th’ Lord an’ him is partners in a coal mine?” to which Mr. Dooley asks, “Has he divided th’ profits?”
For God’s sake, if the corporadoes insist on forever invoking the name of God in their commercial plugs and testimony, let’s keep a record of how many of them have “divided th’ profits.”