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19 January 2009
Oaths as cultural artifact

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that . . .” With these words every president of the United States begins his term in office. The words themselves are grammatically useless—the unnecessary word “do,” the adverb “solemnly,” and in fact the whole clause, could be omitted and the oath-taker could simply say, “I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States. . . .” But without these words it would be just another sentence, not an oath.

Oath is one of those words dredged up from the deepest layers of English that looks more strange the longer you contemplate it. Yet its antiquity testifies to its necessity. There are times when plain speech will not do—when we turn to language that rings with history and tradition. We turn to these words especially for “performative utterances”: words that not only communicate something, but accomplish something, the most famous and widespread probably being the answer to the wedding officiant’s question, “I do.”

Jesus of Nazareth discouraged the use of oaths (that is why the Constitution provides the alternative “affirm”), but tomorrow one of his followers will place his hand on a Bible and take one anyway. And as with all cultural goods, that oath will reinforce existing patterns of belief and behavior, and perhaps create new ones too. What do oaths make of the world?

1. What do oaths assume about the way the world is?

OK, I’m going to be a good public official and not answer the question here, but just add a bit of trivia that many outside the Federal Gov’t in the U.S. may not know: the oath a new President takes is identical to the oath every federal gov’t in the U.S. takes on becoming a federal employee.  strange, but true.

—Chris Hickey

The ceremonies we construct build in the importance we place on a particular event/occasion.  Why else do we spend an average of $20,000 on a wedding in America?  The couple could just go to the county office and take care of the formalities during their lunch break and be just as married.
The public oath or affirmation conveys importance and places the oath-taker under certain legal obligations.  Perhaps we need to stop considering it “just a formality” and reassert its importance as a solemn promise.

—Carl Ginder

Although human beings are untrustworthy (due to their fallen nature), if they place themselves ‘under authority’ (and with consequences for violating this authority), they will be more likely to stick to truthful words and actions.

Thomas B. Grosh IV

I’d be curious what Chris thinks about the President’s “redo” of his oath ... “Is the oath of office only good if it’s ‘word for word?’  Was the inaugural mistake that big a deal, one which necessitated a ‘redo’?’ 

Here’s the link to a fascinating consideration of the grammar involved in the “flub,” (New York Times Op-Ed piece “Oaf of Office,” written by by Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard and the chairman of the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary).

Thomas B. Grosh IV

Oaths make possible a sort of not-quite-thinking repetition that I think is otherwise kind of rare these days. For me this was brought home by the footage of the White House senior staff taking their oaths of office. The way the oath is written (see Andy’s intro above), you can solemnly swear, or solemnly affirm if you’re uncomfortable with swearing. But all the staff repeated, in unison, “I ... do solemnly swear or affirm that ...”


Oaths assume that words are not just words, but acts in context.  How you say something, where you say it and to whom you say it are all as important as the words themselves.  Words in the context of a public oath, bound by a sacred text, are different from words spoken in passing.  In that context, words are more meaningful and hence more binding.

2. What do oaths assume about the way the world should be?

In the new heavens and the new earth, we will live sincere, transparent lives in which our ‘yes’ will be ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ will be ‘no,’ as intended by our Creator.  Lord willing, the lives/words of the people of God as individuals and a community point in that direction.

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all . . . Let your word be “Yes, yes” or “No, no”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.— Matt 5.33-37

Thomas B. Grosh IV

Even in a perfected world, context bestows greater significance on certain words.  ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD God almighty’ is more than simply a syllogism, as it is spoken in the presence of God by His messengers.  Even there, there is an exalted quality to certain words; even there, ritual can transform a statement into a proclamation. 

In the Old Testament, God swears by Himself.  Even the One who by definition cannot lie finds it useful to proclaim oaths and create covenants.  There is something eternal to this; something deeply meaningful in affirming that God’s faithfulness binds words to their meaning.

3. What do oaths make possible?

Oaths affirm/reinforce existing cultural patterns of belief and behavior.  They may impart great meaning or drive home personal (even national) betrayal when broken by a partner or a President. 

The greatest asset which comes to my mind is a definition of boundaries for activities and relationships, one which is enforceable by law.  By God’s grace, the oaths given by those who enforce the rule of law can by and large be trusted. ...

Thomas B. Grosh IV

Well, now we know that oaths can make possible embarrassing slips of memory even if you’re the Chief Justice!

Andy Crouch

I have always thought of oaths as providing continuity and structure to these formal and significant events, like inaugurations and weddings…a place from which to start creating expectations and to start a personal analysis of our progress in that role.

—Amy Starr
4. What do oaths make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

In Kentucky, our oath of office makes it impossible for one to fight in a duel and retain your office.

Mike Hickerson

Public violation of the oath without consequences of some form, e.g., oath of office, fealty to nation (e.g., military), care for patients (e.g., Hippocratic oath), marriage vows.

Note 1:  power, money, and loss of enforced rule of law can change these items. 

Note 2:  Secret oaths are made and enforced by another manner altogether.

Thomas B. Grosh IV
5. What new culture is created in response?

I recently met a printer who uses antique printing presses to make beautiful letterpress cards and newspapers.  He was frustrated with the cheap and ugly photocopies of the Kentucky oath of office being used throughout our state, so he has made a set of absolutely gorgeous letterpress copies of the oath and sent them to the governor. They include a small logo of a pistol to represent the clause against fighting duels (see above).  The printer felt that something as important as an oath of office deserved a medium equal to the words. I hope that the state makes good use of his generous act of culture making.

Mike Hickerson

New relationships, fealty, responsibility which by the grace of God the Father is a blessing to individuals and the larger creation as a whole through the trustworthy carrying out of the oath taken ... but I very much prefer our life in Christ to birth forth a transparency in our ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ and for the Spirit to lead us in honoring all relationships and responsibilities which come our way.

Thomas B. Grosh IV