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U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., asks a question during a May 2018 committee hearing in Washington. After DeGette recently swore in a witness to a subcommittee she heads without using the phrase “so help me God,” she was applauded by The Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit group that supports “a secular society.”

New York Times

WASHINGTON — The witness rose from her seat, raised her right hand and swore to tell the truth before Congress. But four words were missing: “So help me God.”

In the House of Representatives, to the winner go the spoils, and Democrats, the new decision-makers, control everything, including what legislation gets a vote and the minutiae of procedural choices, such as whether witnesses must utter the traditional plea for divine aid. Democratic chairmen and chairwomen of several key committees have deemed no such entreaty is necessary.

“I think God belongs in religious institutions: in temple, in church, in cathedral, in mosque — but not in Congress,” said Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. What Republicans are doing, he continued, “is using God.”

“And God doesn’t want to be used,” he said.

Weak is the hand without the gavel, and the change of phrasing is only one decision of many that the majority gets to make on Capitol Hill, where tradition reigns until it does not and every choice is freighted with subtext.

In 2003, Republicans rebranded the french fries and French toast offered in House cafeterias “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” to express dissatisfaction with Gallic opposition to the proposed invasion of Iraq. When Democrats wrested control of the chamber three years later, they introduced compostable silverware and cups — a decision Republicans swiftly reversed when they came to power in 2011, arguing that the utensils were too flimsy to properly spear salad fixings.

Democrats have introduced a number of changes, each carrying its own symbolism: Free feminine hygiene products are now made available to offices. Several committee leaders have excised the gendered titles of “chairman” or “chairwoman” for the neutral mononym “chair.”

The single change that has prompted the most ire, however, is what Republicans contend is a concerted effort to omit the phrase “so help me God” when administering witness oaths. They point to examples on the Judiciary, Energy and Commerce, and Natural Resources committees; each person presiding over the panels has the power to decide to administer an oath as well as what that oath says.

But like most Washington spats, the truth is more complicated. When Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, who heads the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee, conducted a hearing and swore in the witnesses without the phrase, for example, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., jumped in to point out that “the oath was incorrect and incomplete.”

“This is the oath we use,” DeGette replied, “and that’s the oath we’re going to use today.”

The Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit group dedicated to fostering “a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry and humanist values,” cheered DeGette’s “support for the constitutional separation of church and state.” Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican, scoffed to Fox News that House Democrats “really have become the party of Karl Marx.”

But in truth, DeGette’s comment — “this is the oath we use” — carried no underlying meaning. She was not making a defiant secular stand, but merely reading from the same committee decorum rule book that her Republican predecessor, Rep. Gregg Harper of Mississippi, had used to administer oaths, videos show.

In this case, DeGette’s omission was unintentional.

But some Democrats have mounted ideological defenses of truncating the oath to avoid references to religion. When Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., interrupted Cohen to ask that witnesses be sworn in again — or at least be asked if they would prefer to recite the traditional oath — Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, who leads the Judiciary Committee, interjected.

“We do not have religious tests,” he said, and moved the hearing along.

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Such arguments have troubled Republicans like Johnson, who has been on the front lines of efforts to make the oath invoke God again. He pulled Nadler aside on the House floor to discuss the issue and directed his office to produce short video montages illustrating it. He believes in the cause.

“The intention behind it was to express the idea that the truth of what was being said was important not just in the moment, but would go into eternity, and someone was watching and would ultimately be our judge,” Johnson said. “Some would call that mere symbolism, but to many of our founders, it was deeper than that.”

Johnson said he would continue his crusade, and he has already seen some results.

“To his credit,” he said of Nadler, “we had a hearing where he used ‘so help me God.’ I leaned over and winked at him.”