Contrary to popular belief, George Washington did not utter “So help me God” when taking his oath of office as President of the United States in 1789. It took almost another one hundred years before the first clearly documented case of a President adding the words, “So help me God,” was recorded — when Chester A. Arthur took the oath in 1881.
The United States Air Force recently announced that the words “So help me God” were to be an optional part of the oath after an atheist airman crossed out the words on his reenlistment paperwork. Military officials had initially refused to accept the paperwork, but Department of Defense General Counsel eventually ruled that the words could be omitted.
It was the latest religious controversy in the heavily Christian Air Force, but this particular issue has ancient and somewhat surprising roots: In the early days of Christianity, it was Christians who refused to swear by powers in which they did not believe.
The airmen’s oath was written into law in 1956 and, like the Pledge of Allegiance, did not originally include any reference to God. The final sentence came into the text in 1962, just eight years after “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Even then, however, it was not an absolute requirement in the Air Force. Official policy had stated that “Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.” But the lenient policy was updated and eliminated in 2013, leading to the most recent standoff.
This attempt to force service members to swear a prescribed religious oath is the single biggest blunder by Christians since the Salem witch trials. It is an obvious loser, which is what I cannot understand. How can anyone – Christian, Muslim, agnostic, atheist (or nothing at all), think that any government or private institution other than a church has the right to require religious oaths?
But Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson, media mogul, executive chairman, former Southern Baptist minister, and the host of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s television show, “The 700 Club” reacted to the news by criticizing the Air Force as cowards for “caving in” to the “little Jewish radical” Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, whom he said is “terrorizing” the military.
Pat Robertson is not pleased. Now that the Air Force is allowing atheists to omit the words “So help me God” from the oath, Robertson is flipping out over how quickly this policy was changed. But to be more correct, the Air Force changed its policy back to what it used to be.
Here is exactly what Robertson said: “There’s a left-wing radical named Mikey Weinstein who has got a group about people against religion or whatever he calls it, and he has just terrorized the armed forces. You think you’re supposed to be tough, you’re supposed to defend us, and you got one little Jewish radical who is scaring the pants off of you. You want these guys flying airplanes to defend us when you’ve got one little guy terrorizing them? That’s what it amounts to. We swear oaths, ‘So help me God,’ what does it mean? It means with God’s help. You don’t have to say you believe in God, you just have to say you want some help beside myself with the oath I’m taking. It’s just crazy. What is wrong with the Air Force? How can they fly the bombers to defend us if they cave to one little guy?”
OK, that is what Robertson said. So let me look at this latest Robertson rant in more detail because there are some things that he said that are deeply troubling.
Well, first of all, it was not just “one little guy,” as Robertson claims. It was Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein and the American Humanist Association, and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and even right-winger Gordon Klingenschmitt, a former Navy Chaplain who is the Republican nominee for a seat in the Colorado State House and heads the Pray In Jesus Name Project. By the way, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, of which Weinstein the “one little Jewish radical” is president is an organization that does not oppose religion; it just opposes forcing religion of any kind down the throats of others. Weinstein is a former White House counsel to President Ronald Reagan and an Air Force veteran himself. (Oh, the irony of it all). He is of Jewish heritage, but identifies himself as agnostic.
And what is with Robertson saying, “You don’t have to say you believe in God”? Signing the oath is admitting exactly just that! Remember: All the other branches of the Armed Forces made “So help me God” optional a long time ago. The Air Force is only now falling in line with the other services. So why did not Robertson complaining about the other branches?
The Air Force agreeing that service members’ religious beliefs should not preclude them from enlisting is not “caving in.” In my opinion, such a practice makes them stronger. It is what the Air Force should have been doing all along. How much sense does it make to ask for help from something or someone in whom you do not believe?
And another thing. There is an unsettling undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Robertson bringing up the fact that Weinstein is Jewish. I find that disturbing to say the least. Why should the fact that Weinstein is Jewish have any bearing on the conversation? Oh wait, could it be because Robertson and his 700 Club cronies are at the forefront of pushing an extremist Christian agenda! To my mind, that is what Robertson’s whole rant is really about.
The idea that the United States Air Force, or any other military institution, would be responsive and respectful to an individual’s religious beliefs, or lack of said beliefs, is a threat in Pat Robertson’s eyes. Hence, his desire to establish a correlation between service members taking the oath in its entirety and their ability to perform the duties that they are trained to perform. Just because the Air Force finally came to its senses does not mean that pilots who do not see “God as their co-pilot” will be incapable of flying airplanes. To think otherwise is to disrespect our military personnel. Our servicemen and women fight for their country so that it remains free and protected from danger. They do not fight to forcibly convert people to a specific religion. That is what ISIS does. However, Pat Robertson is hissy-fit furious about this decision, and seems to believe that allowing this change of policy means that those who exercise this option are all unfit to fly planes and fight for our country.
That is ludicrous! That is an insult to members of the armed services!
I am not sure why Robertson thinks that it is not the least bit odd to ask for help from a God in whom one does not believe. Or why he would think that allowing someone to not do this is a sign of weakness. He also does not explain what it is, exactly, that he thinks he would get out of making an atheist swear such an oath. And furthermore, when did a religious test become the standard for service to this country?
For someone who claims to be as holy as Robertson apparently does, I find it strange that he would feel so strongly about forcing someone to literally take the lord’s name in vain and to lie, both of which are big-time commandments. I would think he would take his faith just a tad more seriously.
Additionally, there are actually many Christians, such as Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Anabaptists, who do not believe in taking such oaths either. Eugene Volokh, the Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at UCLA, points out that the inclusion of “So help me God” is not legally necessary, as the Constitution “expressly authorizes people not to swear at all, but to affirm, without reference to God or to a sacred work.”
In this vein, Roger Williams – not the popular pianist, but the 17th century Puritan who founded the state of Rhode Island as a place of religious tolerance – also refused to take such an oath to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when he was living there because he believed that swearing before God was a sacred act of worship and prayer and thus had no place in civil proceedings. I wonder if such a profound idea has ever crossed Pat Robertson’s mind.
“Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” So wrote Roger Williams on 22 June 1670 in a letter to Major John Wilson and to Connecticut Governor Thomas Prence. Sophisticated theologians get the meaning of this totally. I suspect that Pat Robertson does not “get it.” As a human being who is capable of empathy and compassion, I simply imagine that anyone who is truly devout will be disgusted by the idea of trying to force others to pretend to be devout when they are not.
The problem is that forcing atheists to say “So help me God” is like forcing them to say that they believe in God. You cannot force someone to acknowledge a deity in which that person does not believe. Is not that a clear violation of the Constitution and is it not precisely why the Air Force had no choice but to allow atheist airmen to opt out of saying those words?
One final thing. If you are like me, you see that it is a piece of delicious irony that the person whom Pat Robertson bases his whole life around is just “one little Jewish radical” – an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth by the name of Yehoshua ben Yosef (Jesus, son of Joseph).