Help us expand our reach! Please share this article
The Constitution stipulates that before assuming office the President must take either "an Oath or Affirmation" to defend the Constitution. As every schoolboy used to know, the Framers included the option of "affirming" as an accommodation towards the Quakers, who believed in conscience that Jesus had forbidden oaths.
In this matter the Framers were following English law, which since 1696 had permitted Quakers to "affirm" the truth in courts of law rather than to swear. Before then, Quakers in conscience could neither defend themselves nor give testimony in court, sometimes with grave personal consequences.
Certainly it was open to the Framers to insist on swearing: "That's how we do things, and if you Quakers are unwilling to go along, then that is your problem." But the Framers in their wisdom preferred a tiny accommodation, which showed friendliness to the Friends while still preserving the common good.
The Constitution, then, does not merely protect religious freedom in its Bill of Rights. It also expresses the spirit of religious freedom in the very formula it gives for the President's public avowal that he will defend that Constitution. Religious freedom, and friendliness toward people of conscience, are two sides of the same coin. What believers claim by right, others must be disposed to grant in friendship.