August 6, 2013

Requiring Theistic Oath for Air Force Officers Sends Wrong Message

Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) brings us the story of Jonathan Bise, young man who is about to become an officer in the U.S. Air Force when he graduates today. There is just one thing standing in his way:
However, he’s been told he will have to say an oath with the phrase “so help me God” in order to graduate — no substitutions allowed.
According to Mehta, the Air Force intends to require Bise to say these words in order to complete his transition. Fortunately, the American Humanist Association is trying to help Bise. This is clearly a church-state issue. As Hemant notes,
No one would force a Christian soldier to pledge an oath stating “God doesn’t exist” and no one should force an atheist to do the opposite.
Requiring Bise to take this oath without omission or substitution seems like a clear violation of separation of church and state. And while I agree that this is important and applaud the American Humanist Association for their effort, I'd like to come at the issue from a different angle here. Instead of focusing on the illegality of the oath, I'd like to encourage those reading this to put themselves in Bise's shoes and imagine what his experience or the experience of someone in similar circumstances would be like.

Bise is about to graduate from Air Force officer training and enter military service. He has undoubtedly worked his ass off and faced countless obstacles to get to where he is. And now he is preparing to risk his life to defend his country. Many Americans claim that they "support our troops," that they are in awe of the courage these men and women demonstrate, and that they place a high value military service. So why would we want to force Bise to do something against his conscience here? What message is that supposed to send him? Aren't religious freedom and the separation of church and state among the values we are asking him to defend?

I would imagine that most Americans value attributes like honesty, courage, and a willingness to stand up for what one thinks is right. They would want to see these attributes in the men and women in uniform tasked who represent them. And yet, what do you suppose will happen if word of Bise's reluctance to say this oath is broadcast on right-wing media? He will be attacked for having the very traits we say we admire.

When a young man or woman reaches the end of their education or training (e.g., officer training in the military, college graduation in civilian life), he or she stands on the precipice of a major life transition. This is a time to be celebrated. All the hard work and sacrifice is about to pay off, but there is usually an element of regret as one reflects on the friends one will leave behind and the uncertain future one faces. I fail to see how compelling someone to recite hollow words in which they do not believe is anything but detrimental to this process. Requiring someone like Bise to stand before us and lie is despicable on our parts.

Besides the obvious church-state implications, this is part of the reason I oppose any sort of religious involvement (typically, sectarian prayer) at the commencement ceremonies of public schools. The graduates who want religion can easily get it at home and their chosen places of worship. They can get as much of it as they want, and they can be sure to get it in whatever particular form they want it. Pushing religion on those who do not want it by making it a part of the official ceremony sends the wrong message (i.e., that the non-religious do not really belong and are less valued than the religious).

Update: The Huffington Post is now reporting that Bise and others will have the opportunity to use a secular oath at the graduation ceremony without any references to gods.

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