As many are aware, the Air Force became the last branch of the military to make “so help me God” optional in the oath of enlistment this past week.
A legal review of rules that required the phrase occurred after the American Humanist Association (AHA) threatened to sue on behalf of an atheist airman. The unnamed airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada was denied re-enlistment Aug. 25 after crossing the phrase out of the oath.
Unsurprisingly, this week’s manufactured outrage de jour had conservatives angry. Allen West stated:
Hmm, I thought the first amendment stated “Freedom of religion and the free exercise thereof” — so again, am I missing something? When did atheism become a religion? It seems this group has interpreted the First Amendment to say “freedom FROM religion” but then again where in stating “so help me God” is anyone being forced to support a religion?
And Pat Robertson said:
“You want these guys flying the airplanes to defend us when you got one little guy [Mikey Weinstein] terrorizing them?” Robertson went on. “That’s what it amounts to. … How can [the Air Force] fly the bombers to defend us if they cave to one little guy?”
Robertson added that you don’t necessarily have to believe in God to say the phrase. “You just say, ‘I want some help besides myself [with] the oath I’m taking,’” he reasoned.
I heard the usual hyperbole on talk radio this week of God being “kicked out” of the Air Force and similar such nonsense. The truth is that the Air Force is merely joining the rest of the the services in making the phrase in the oath of enlistment optional. The logic of the Offendetariat follows that not forcing an atheist serviceman to swear by a divinity he does not believe in is a war on our Judeo-Christian heritage.
The Left and Right both imagine their preferred boogeyman in the military, a point illustrated by two remarkably similar conversations I had this year. An atheist friend of mine sought my presumed confirmation that the Army is full of bible-thumpers seeking to turn it into a theocracy and that I must be besieged on all sides by mad-eyed proselytizers. Around the same time, a former theology teacher of mine wondered if the dark forces of secularism had succeeded in snuffing out every mention of God and if Christian soldiers would soon be resorting to celebrating religious services secretly by candlelight away from the prying eyes of authorities. Both miss the mark.
As an atheist who has spent the last 6 years associated with the military, two things have been striking when it comes to religion:
- Servicemen are far less religious than people imagine. And the ones who are believers are extremely muted on the subject. I lead a platoon of 25 soldiers for a year and learned everything there was to know about most of them. But religious preference? I could maybe tell you for sure what the faith was of three of them, and that is only because several of them mentioned attending Ash Wednesday services. Religion simply does not come up except for the occasional and very non-denominational sounding invocation at unit events. If anything, I have been surprised by the commonness of non-belief among the war veterans. Foxholes are filled with atheists.
- The military is perfectly accommodating to any religious preference or lack of preference. I have never once felt pressured or had my rights “threatened” as a non-believer. No one has ever even asked what I do with my Sunday mornings. I have no need to disclose or trumpet my godlessness to who I work with. (Humorously enough — or sadly if stereotypes bother you — I have been presumed Jewish on multiple occasions due to my draconian stinginess with money as well as some tattoos in Hebrew that I have.)
Getting back to the oath of enlistment, I happen to think the AHA and MRFF (lead by another master of hyperbole Mikey Weinstein) are overblown in their criticisms, though I think the Air Force ruled correctly. For those who are believers, you can still invoke God in your oath of enlistment, while the atheist need not. It is a practical and commonsense ruling.
Image Credit: Flickr user US Air Force.