Let’s perform a quick exercise here. Imagine that you’re just walking into work on a Monday morning and your manager wants to talk to you. Thanking you for the fine work you’ve been doing up until this point, your manager informs you that your reliability is in question – along with your continued success, and very future, at the company. In fact, you learn, management suspects that you’re a vain, wishy-washy, and rather empty-headed member of the team who’s undeserving of trust. Bewildered at the sudden questioning of your integrity, your boss tells you that you can turn it all around, regain trust, and continue your workday after placing your hand on a leather-bound religious book and stating a simple oath along the lines of “There is no god but Allah,” or “I Accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.”
Surely this nightmare is the product of some far-flung, back-water and oppressed land, right? ISIS territory, perhaps? That could never happen in the United States, the beacon of religious freedom and human rights. . . or could it?
Regrettably, this truly horrific scenario is indeed the case within the United States Air Force (USAF). Just the other day, the USAF public affairs office at the Pentagon informed the world that “Reciting ‘So help me God’ in its official reenlistment and commissioning oaths is a statutory requirement under 10 U.S.C. §502“. In short, you had better repent and swear your oath to “God” or be gone. Interestingly, that just cited U.S. Code provision (which the Air Force is pathetically using to support its “sorry, our hands are tied” position of abject cowardice here) also makes it clear that armed forces members may “affirm”, in lieu of swearing, this enlistment or commissioning oath. When one “affirms” such an oath of office, there is NO need to “swear” to “God” to do so. Such is the very distinction between “swearing and affirming.” 10 U.S.C. §502 allows either to be done by the enlisting or commissioning Air Force member. The USAF’s transparent duplicity and specious motivations for basing its new decision to force service members to swear to God are dangerous, disingenuous and despicable.
One airman based at Creech Air Force base in Nevada learned about this renewed religious requirement the hard way. He was informed that unless he speaks and signs the religious oath, his days as an airman are through. “So help me God” isn’t optional anymore. It is now a basic condition of Air Force enlistment.
The oft-repeated and much vaunted core values of the U.S. Air Force are, ostensibly: (1) Integrity First; (2) Service Before Self; and, (3) Excellence in All We Do. One must ask – when airmen are asked to take an oath that’s unambiguously untrue from their own perspective of personal belief, where’s the “integrity”? Why should service members, who’ve already made the weighty decision to place their well-being, freedom, and safety on the line, also be coerced into religious submission and humiliation via the forced repetition of religious oaths that egregiously contradict their own core beliefs as individuals? Perhaps, for the sake of verity and consistency, the first core value of USAF should be altered to “Integrity Last.”
Under such a tyrannical regime of theological oppression, even selfless heroes such as the late U.S. Army Corporal Pat Tillman, whose atheism was well know, would be deemed unfit for service in our nation’s armed forces. Is the lunacy of this USAF stupidity really that hard to see? Will the USAF actually have to be dragged into federal court before it acknowledges its disgusting position of religious extremism here?
Whatever the USAF core values might be, such reprehensible examples of blatant religious coercion fly in the face of the Constitution of the United States of America and an enormous amount of related Constitutional case law stretching back at least 125 years. Indeed, the bulk of the First Amendment is devoted to our guaranteed freedom of religion (or freedom therefrom, if one so chooses). There is the Establishment Clause, which explicitly prohibits compulsory religious oaths, and then there is the Free Exercise Clause, which prevents a person from having to submit to coerced practices and affirmations of a scathingly sectarian nature. Let us neither forget the “No Religious Test” mandate of Clause 3, Article VI of the Constitution which, by itself, would be wholly dispositive here of the USAF’s vile iniquity. Indeed, the issue of religious oaths has long been settled via bedrock legal precedents fortifying Constitutional equal protection which formidably underscores the already unequivocal guarantees laid out in our Constitution.
The case law is so universally settled in this precise area that even actors who play lawyers on TV or in the movies could win this one in court.
Of course, for some, that pesky document serving so ably as the inalienable foundation of the Law of the Land throughout the United States, merely comprises an obnoxious obstacle that stands in the way of the sectarian agendas of fundamentalist Christian exceptionalism and supremacy. This disingenuous evangelical, fundamentalist Fifth Column loves to hide behind phrases like “family,” “Judeo-Christian,” “values” and “tradition” to disguise their ignoble goal, which remains the absolute theological takeover of the Pentagon, White House, and Capitol Hill.
The civil rights foundation that I lead, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), has fought tooth-and-nail against these and similar manifestations of the theocratic, Christo-fascist tsunami within the U.S. Military. Over 38,200 service members, civilian personnel, and armed service veterans have reached out to us for help with grievances running the gamut from disrespectful spiritual denigration and marginalization to what can only be described as outright religious and/or spiritual rape. In fact, last year we refuted the lie that “So Help Me God” is some sacred legacy of the George Washington-era Officer’s Oath, and our civil rights struggle successfully led the Air Force to state that the oath would be optional. Tragically, now the USAF has reversed its prior decision and reinstated the unconstitutional, mandatory oath.
“Freedom isn’t free,” or so we hear, and this maxim certainly is the case within the service branches of the U.S. Military. However, why should our brave service members be asked to sacrifice and destroy their pride, integrity, honor and character and waive their basic Constitutional freedom to choose their god or not? Mandating that re-enlistment oaths must include “So Help Me God” merely institutionalizes religious exclusivism and brutally imposes severely deleterious repercussions on airman morale, good order, unit cohesion and discipline. Further it erects a de facto “Constitution-Free Zone” within the Air Force that nefariously nullifies the Constitution’s First Amendment and Article VI. Less importantly, it also directly contradicts the prohibition of oaths mentioned in the New Testament. In Matthew 5:33-37, which is an important part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, it clearly states: “Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne. But let your communication be, Yea, Nay, for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”
I guess the Air Force would have rejected Jesus as well?