Very soon, cadets at the US Air Force Academy (USAFA) and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, as well as midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, will be marching to one of the happiest events of their lives: graduation. At USAFA, on the day before the actual stadium graduation, soon-to-be lieutenants literally march out of their squadron formations on the parade field in a “Flying Wedge Formation,” the inverse of how they marched into their squadrons almost four years earlier. It’s an exceedingly beautiful and emotional sight for parents, faculty, and staff. Later that day, squadrons hold “commissioning ceremonies.” There are a total of forty squadrons in the Cadet Wing/student body – at which a personally chosen officer administers the oath of office, “swearing them in” as USAF second lieutenants.
The oath of office is well known and traces its heritage to Washington’s oath written for the Continental Army. Unlike Washington’s oath, however, this oath contains four final words: “So Help Me God”. In practice, these four final words are “optional” for those who may object to adding them – consistent with Article Six of the Constitution, which bans any religious test for public office.
However “optional” those last four words may be, legally speaking, the pressure to say them can be literally overwhelming. Large cue cards for all oath administrators not only include those words, but they’re also usually highlighted in a bold, all-caps font. Unless the cadet specifically asks the administrator in advance to omit those jarringly theologically inspired words, they will certainly be said – as sure as the sun sets in the west. This leaves the non-believing cadet the only option of either NOT repeating them – which runs the very real risk of ostracism or being perceived as “disrespecting the administrator” – or stating something that counters their core personal beliefs.
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Whether the cadet pre-arranges the omission or just opts not to repeat it, the die is fully cast: ALL in attendance immediately know that the omitting cadet is “different,” publicly proclaiming non-membership in the monotheistic supermajority. In the minds of many, this is tantamount to moral and spiritual inferiority, as well as a lack of the necessary and sufficient religious qualities that America expects of its military leaders. Having witnessed this abortive pause before, I can tell you that it is terribly chilling. It would be as if someone next to you sat down abruptly DURING the national anthem, specifically ignoring “…and the home of the brave!”
Recently, dozens of USAFA cadets notified the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) to express their sharp concern about rumors that each squadron’s commissioning would include “confidential informants” (CIs) to record and report any who choose to omit the “four words.” Most of those who have reached out to MRFF are practicing Christians themselves, just not of the fundamentalist caliber. These cadets fear that offenders’ names will be passed like black balls at a fraternity induction to future military bases and supervisors through the vast and byzantine network of fundamentalist Christian organizations that illicitly pervade the ranks of the armed forces, e.g., Officers Christian Fellowship, Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ’s Military Ministries. These cadets are legitimately afraid that their careers could be fatally stunted before they even get off the ground – having no recourse because they remain in the dark regarding the identity of the CIs and their contacts. To be branded as a “not-Christian enough” troublemaker before one even reports to their first duty assignment can have an enormously disheartening impact on these newly-minted, shiny, and (hopefully) idealistic models of the Air Force Core Values of Integrity, Service, and Excellence.
What to do? Ironically, for the sake of saving one’s face and gaining “moral” or “ethical” legitimacy in the eyes of their peers and superiors, these cadets must lie. They convince themselves that taking a stance on principal is just not worth it: “How can I serve and change things for the better – for enhanced inclusiveness and true respect – if I can’t even make it to my first assignment without a black mark? It’s just a little lie. No one really needs to know my religious views anyway. They clearly WANT me to lie—look at that cue card. Do what everyone else is doing… Screw it!”
Our civil rights foundation, MRFF, doesn’t want you to lie – but we understand why you feel like you might have to. As you’re marching to your graduation parade and look over your shoulder at the “Core Values Ramp,” we don’t want you to start your commissioned service by violating the FIRST of those values (“Integrity”) on your FIRST day as a lieutenant—even if it seems that’s what the Air Force wants you to do. They’ve made clear, through Air Force Instruction 1-1 and myriad DoD regulations, that it’s improper for commanders to use their power to coerce religious practice or promote a particular religious viewpoint. Nevertheless, now the same officers tasked with enforcing these regulations are unceremoniously breaking them by putting unbearable pressure on you to break your word. The pressure becomes agonizing as its application becomes a public affair. Why not lie then, since your superiors also lied?
Please don’t. You’ll see enough lies, calumny, and disingenuous glad-handing post-graduation and in the course of your service. You’ll see others use their lies as stepping-stools to even greater and far more perilous lies, as was the case with the falsified nuclear missile launch officer tests and so many other sad instances. If you do lie, then we beg you to make this your LAST lie. After graduation, you’re a commissioned military leader. Rinse yourself of this original sin, and stand up for the Constitution and your fellow airmen. You may have stained your character by lying once, but if you allow yourself to repeat these lies and make it a habit, you are officially a part of the problem – and that is something that we can’t tolerate.
Why? Well, because it’s not actually merely a “problem”, it’s a national security threat. Thus, we urge you: please don’t.