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Religion and State

Have you ever watched an inauguration of an American president? Are there contradictory elements in the ceremony concerning the First Amendment?
George Washington: Inaugeration
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President's Oath of Office

Barack Obama on big screen.photo.

If religion is separate from state as the First Amendment implies then why do Presidents and federal officials take their oath of office by placing their hand on a Bible and reciting, “so help me God”? In practice we see the opposite of the First Amendment. A recent example of this was when the world watched Barack Obama place his left hand on President Lincoln’s Bible. Historical information shows that as far back as there is documentation, only one President (Teddy Roosevelt,1901) did not use a Bible, and this was due to an emergency swearing in after an assassination.

It is important to understand that this is completely voluntary and not required, neither the use of the Bible nor the “so help me God”. The Constitution is secular.

Pledge of Allegiance

Another display of this confusion of separation of religious beliefs revolves around the reciting of the “Pledge of Allegiance” in public schools. In most schools across America, students stand and place their right arm over their heart and recite the Pledge at the start of each school day. The Pledge was written in 1892 but it was not until 1954 that the final words of “under God”, were added. Today it reads,

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The use of these two words dates back to the Gettysburg Address, a speech given by President Lincoln during the American Civil War in 1863. At the start of the 1950's the world's largest Catholic fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus, began using these words in the pledge. The idea of including these words spread nationwide which led to a resolution to Congress. Attempts to amend the pledge were defeated. However, in 1954 things changed. President Eisenhower attended a memorial church service to honor Lincoln and the pastor's sermon highlighted the use of his words "under God". He expressed how these words set America apart from other nations. Eisenhower was truly inspired and in June of that same year a bill was signed into law.

Opinion Poll

A poll carried out by Newsweek magazine states that most Americans are not willing to remove the phrase “under God”. Even though nearly half of those polled agree that the US is a secular country, an amazing 87% did not want to remove the controversial words “so help me God”.

So what can we conclude from these two examples? Americans will defend their Constitutional rights of freedom and believe firmly in the First Amendment, which allows them to put forth and express their religious beliefs. It’s a personal choice and a voluntary one, in America.

Tasks and Activities


  1. What two examples were given demonstrating the confusion concerning the separation of the state and religious beliefs?
  2. What did the Newsweek poll reveal?

Pair Work

Sit in pairs and explain the meaning of the words listed below. Helpful hint: first find the words in the above text and see if you can discover their meaning.

  • contradictory
  • inauguration
  • assassination
  • voluntary
  • secular
  • separation
  • allegiance
  • poll
  • controversial
  • religious beliefs


  1. Norway had an official state church until 2012. Why do you think it was decided to separate church and state in Norway?

  2. Separating church and state has not prevented religion from playing a role in US politics; why do you think that is?

CC BY-SASkrevet av Christine Varadian Johnsen.
Sist faglig oppdatert 07.10.2018


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