Three hundred people gather at the Trade Center this week to hear the oaths of office from 23 people holding office in Hamilton County, from sheriff and county mayor to school board members.
By David Tulis / 92.7 NoogaRadio
It’s easy for lookers-on and people hearing about the event in the evening news to believe such events are mostly honorific mostly ceremonial, full of self-importance and form over substance, just for show. Yes, officials are sworn in, they are inaugurated; so what does it matter, and why would anyone care?
The event serves a religious function about ultimate causes and ultimate responsibility for the right use of power and authority pursuant to Romans 13, which reminds us that the ministry of grace exists, as well as the ministry of the sword — that of justice and retribution.
The taking of oaths in a public forum reminds everyone that within and above the world and its people is an external power that compels obedience to one’s oath, and through it obedience to the law, a power that guarantees the oaths of office-seekers who are now office-takers.
Violating an oath is easy. Fierce temptations are all about, dissuading one to stop respecting existing law and insensate convenience Plan B. One pursues one’s ease. One’s pleasure. One’s avoidance of conflict among professional colleagues of the same rank in ignoring one’ vows and doing what is easy in office.
Asked why oaths are administered particularly and not as a group, register of deeds Mark Gravitt said that the oaths differ because offices and jobs differ. A tax assessor’s oath has different substance than a school board member’s. Bill Knowles, the county clerk entering his 12th four-year term, demurred on the question of why individual oaths. “I did not have any part in the planning of the ceremony so I can’t answer that. Mayor Coppinger could probably answer that.”
The answer is that oaths of office are individual, are never a “we” but an “I” in the making of them. So oaths are made singly bind the human heart individually.
And on Bibles, often. Sheriff Jim Hammond had his red-leather Bible with him upon which he vowed to honestly protect the court and its function. Not one of the 23 taking office insisted on making an affirmation in lieu of an oath. Rev. Anne Weeks made an invocation and Dr. Jeffrey T. Wilson made the benediction — all claiming divine providence to sanctify the proceedings.
To establish the oath as a record, it is done on a podium before a crowd, and also recorded in writing. Two deputy clerks, Carrie Godwin and Brooke Weaver, were tasked with collecting signed oath sheets with the swearer’s signature, and that of a witness, usually the party administering the vow.
Oaths as enforcer
The event downtown highlights the importance of oaths before God in American politics, and the prospect of enforcement of constitutional government by the people through the oath.
Swearing-in ceremonies are heavily invested with claims about God and ultimate authority. When the judge puts his hand on the Bible, his other hand raised to invoke God, and the new official swears to support the constitution, he is declaring that whatever faults the constitution might have, he will obey its provisions under God’s perfect authority and law, that its rules control his hands and feet, rule over his edicts, memos, directives, policies and official will — and all in the presence of God.
Whatever weakness may reside in constitutional provisions, the judge or commissioner lays these aside and stands before God with a promise made to Him and before the people that he will obey these provisions. The usual direction of these oaths is that the people and their prosperity will be preserved against all disorder, crime, malfeasance and injustice through the person at the officeholder.
The oath is a thing by which the people, mindful of their liberties, might use to bring an errant official into conformity with the law.
The oath is a handle, the mechanism, the means by which a judge or commissioner is held to account.
When Bill Knowles took the oath the last time he was re-elected, he swore to uphold the constitution of Tennessee, come what may.
And a gay shadow fell across the land, that being an opinion out of the federal judiciary, Obergefell vs. Hodges, which purported to level all statutory constitutional structures across the United States and to neutralize the biblical ethic of marriage reflected in many state constitutions, including Tennessee’s.
It alleged a right in marriage by people who are homosexual and cannot partake of marriage, so insist on the next best thing, to obtain use of the manmade statutorily constructed or judge-imposed simulacra of that creational union between Adam and Eve. Until Obergefell, states’ laws coincided with God’s law, though states seized from God and from their citizens the right of marriage and converted it into a pretended state privilege. States made marriage subject to license. With Obergefell, the coincidence of state marital schemes with scripture and God’s law was destroyed.
Obergefell fell across the landscape of American county courthouses like a thunderclap, levitating all marriage law away from clerks who’d vowed to support it, separating them from their promises, acting like a neutron bomb to destroy all life in statute touching on marriage, but leaving the lines of type on the page as if they were empty shells, empty words now without meaning, mere gibberish of no significance, mere carcasses of phrases beating no blood of meaning.
Like a neutron bomb that destroys all inhabitants of a city, but leaves the buildings intact, Obergefell pretended to vacate constitutional marriage amendments and state laws on marriage to reorganize human society top down, as progressive socialist theory of the GOP and Democrats requires.
One hundred percent of American county clerks complied — except one in Kentucky.
Perilous forward-looking vows
Mr. Knowles and the other 22 people this week make not standard oaths to tell the truth, as in a court case. They made promissory oaths — forward-looking oaths.
They obligate themselves to not throw a law aside, to not enforce a new regime of their own wills or their own permission. They are debtors to owning their promises to uphold the law. Promissory oaths are dangerous, because they project into the future obedience to a promise made today in which future circumstances are unknown.
A county clerk, on taking an oath to uphold the constitution’s marriage amendment prior to Obergefell, made such an oath. His oath the day of his swearing-in ceremony hung over his head, a threat and a promise, demanding performance.
God ordains, and limits, making of vows
Oaths are authorized under the third commandment that protects God’s name and attributes. A clerk cannot use, or take up, the name of God in his oath in vain, or unto vanity or a lie. He cannot lift up his soul in the oath, or swear deceitfully.
Says a Puritan divine: “Perjury is a sin condemned by the light of nature, as a complication of impiety toward God and injustice toward man, and as rendering a man highly obnoxious to the divine wrath, which was always judged to follow so infallibly upon that sin, that the forms of swearing were commonly turned into execrations or imprecations; as that, God do so to me, and more also; and with us, So help me God; wishing I may never have any help from God, if I swear falsely.”
In taking an oath, a sheriff, a school board member or a county clerk calls upon God to witness his vow to uphold the constitution. “Of those promises made to our brethren,” Matthew Henry says, “to which God was a Witness, he being appealed to concerning our sincerity; these must be performed to the Lord, with an eye to him, and for his sake: for to him, by ratifying the promises with an oath, we have made ourselves debtors; and if we break a promise so ratified, we have not lied unto men only, but unto God.”
Strict rules for swearing
Swearing is indeed lawful, though some Christians refuse to make oaths. The modern system in court of “affirmation” accounts for the conscience of these individuals, and that of atheists and heathens who deny God. An affirmation, however, is offering oneself as guarantor of a promise to perform, and is largely worthless.
In the sermon on the mount the Lord Jesus does not forbid oaths, but careless and irreverent swearing making light of God’s name or attributes. “[T]he frequent requiring and using of oaths,” Henry says, “is a reflection upon Christians, who should be of such acknowledged fidelity, as that their sober words should be as sacred as their solemn oaths.”
Light swearing is a sin and a corruption to which are prone, like among those people whose word means little. Men swear careless oaths “because they are distrustful one of another, and think they cannot be believed without them.” If we think our word alone is not believable and if we resort to vain oaths, we render our credulity hollow. “So if we deny a thing, let is suffice to say, No; or if it be requisite, to repeat the denial, and say, No, no; and if our fidelity be known, that will suffice to gain us credit; and if it be questioned, to back what we say with swearing and cursing, is but to render it more suspicious. They who can swallow a profane oath, will not strain at a lie.” If we accept vain oaths we are capable of lying easily, to our discredit, Henry says.
The scriptures warn against promissory oaths because of the burden they impose. “[W]e must in a special manner avoid promissory oaths, of which Christ more particularly speaks here, for they are oaths that are to be performed. The influence of an affirmative oath immediately ceases, when we have faithfully discovered the truth, and the whole truth; but a promissory oath binds so long, and may be so many ways broken, by the surprise as well as strength of a temptation, that it is not to be used but upon great necessity.”
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The federal court ruling against marriage was a high challenge — a fierce temptation — to clerks such as Mr. Knowles. Such a ruling tempted Mr. Knowles to dissolve the substance of his oath, to relieve himself of its duty, to remove from his hands the issue the oath was to have settled. That issue was: Does the constitution bind him until he leaves office, or is there a circumstance that absolves him of the oath, with God’s approval?
Mr. Knowles, our devout Christian whom no one will criticize except a single writer, threw aside the law. Rather than be hurt, he succumbed. The God to whom swore four years ago and again this week has taken his deed under advisement, at the very least, and makes His own judgment, remembering the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus for all His children.
What about Sheriff Hammond?
The county’s most important man is the sheriff, that office held by Jim Hammond. The oath for sheriff seems to be missing an important element affecting the people’s interest. It is at Tenn. Code Ann. 8-8-104. Oath of office sheriff.
The sheriff shall, besides the oaths prescribed for public officers, take an oath that the sheriff has not promised or given, nor will give, any fee, gift, gratuity, or reward for the office or for aid in procuring such office, that the sheriff will not take any fee, gift, or bribe, or gratuity for returning any person as a juror or for making any false return of any process, and that the sheriff will faithfully execute the office of sheriff to the best of such sheriff‘s knowledge and ability agreeably to law.”
How are we protected if the sheriff is not subject to the constitution? Says Matt Lea, Mr. Hammond’s spokesman: “I would recommend that you reach out to a member of the General Assembly or one of our local state delegation members as to why the oath is written into code the way it is. They are the governing body responsible for maintaining and updating the TCA. The sheriff is duly obligated by law to take the oath as prescribed by law.”
A demure reply, for sure. Does not Sheriff Hammond swear to support the constitution? No. And here’s my best shot at an explanation.
Mr. Hammond’s office precedes the state and has an organic origin in the earth itself, as in the English common law.
His allegiance is to the people and to the local court, not to the state constitution nor the government, whether it be Tennessee or its evil twin, a corporation called State of Tennessee. It is not to the U.S. government or the governor of Tennessee. He has loyalty to the local people as protector, as against crime from within by private criminals, and from violations against rights from without by public ones. He is lococentric and localist in his duty, in his perspective and his authority.
His office is that of peacekeeping and protection of what is essentially the ancient model for civil government, that of the judiciary as the repository of that arm of justice, the sword righteously applied.
But “modernized” by the policing trade, the sheriff views himself as involved in “law enforcement,” loyal to the state and imposing the state’s laws upon the people in the name of public order and public policy pursuant to state law. These shiftings away from his common-law origins occurred over decades, not in the course of a single day.
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