“Abhorrent to our tradition”: the Air Force and the test oath

The Air Force fires an airman for refusing to take an oath “so help me God.”

A serving airman was refused re-enlistment because he crossed out the words “So help me God” in the oath he told to take. (This is based on reporting by Air Force Times – not an especially radical journal – and the story quotes an Air Force spokeswoman, so I’m treating it as fact rather than mere allegation.)

According to the AF official, reciting the oath in full is required by statute. But until last October, the implementing regulations included a conscience clause; that somehow got omitted when the regulations were re-issued.

Of course the statute without the conscience clause is transparently unconstitutional; Article VI provides that “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” (It also allows officials to make an “affirmation” in place of an “oath.”) As the Supreme Court said back in 1946, “The test oath is abhorrent to our tradition.” Its use to bar non-Anglicans from public life (and the professions) in England was one of the grievances that spurred the Puritan/Quaker/Catholic exodus to the American colonies.

The aggrieved party in this case appears to be an atheist, but there are also pious Christians (e.g., Quakers) and Jews who scruple at invoking the Name, or indeed at swearing at all (thus the “affirmation” provision in Article VI). As a famous rabbi once said (Matt. 5:33-37:

Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths. But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne, nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”

No doubt the airman will win his case, though if he does he will, equally undoubtedly, return to service a marked man with limited career prospects.

But if I were the President, or the Secretary of Defense, or the Secretary of the Air Force, or a member of one of the Armed Services Committees, I wouldn’t be satisfied with having the victim reinstated and the regulation re-issued in its previous, Constitutionally compliant, form. I’d worry about the bureaucratic culture within the Air Force that led to a deliberate decision as recently as last year to impose a burden on the scrupulous.

The Air Force Academy is in Colorado Springs, a hotbed of Religious Right activism, and the Christian Dominionist tendencies that have become problematic throughout the armed services seem to be especially strong in the Air Force. Cleaning out this problem may well require a small river. But the job will never be completed if it’s never started.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

5 thoughts on ““Abhorrent to our tradition”: the Air Force and the test oath”

  1. There's an odd man out in the linked article's list of similar outrages:

    For two decades, chaplains at Vandenberg Air Force Base had taught something called “Christian Just War Theory” to provide a theological basis for nuclear warfare to young airmen concerned about the morality of dropping such devastating weapons on human beings.

    I should hope so too. If you are going to have military chaplains, one of their duties must be to try to reconcile the teachings of their faith with the exigencies of the trade their flock have signed up to. That's why even atheist generals like to keep them – as they do in France. The objection here is to capture by Caesar, not of Caesar.

  2. Part of the problem is that, although the Constitution is the highest law of the land, government officials may violate it with impunity. Of course, there are many close constitutional questions, and I do not believe that officials should be punished if they come out on the losing side of a 5-4 Supreme Court case. Or even a 9-0 Supreme Court case, because, if the Court takes a case, then there was a genuine disagreement about it.

    But when a government official's action blatantly and unequivocally violates the Constitution, as requiring the oath does here, then the official ought to face sanctions (other than suspension with pay), and, in egregious cases, criminal sanctions. Sanctions might be imposed, for example, when a school principal or teacher forces a child to join in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, when a cop tasers a person who has already been subdued, or when a cop arrests a person or seizes his camera for photographing the cop's actions in a public place.

  3. And of course, not all Quakers are Christians. I know several who are Jewish and at least one who is Buddhist.

  4. This kind of thing saddens me. Swear or Affirm is all I've ever known. Its one of those verities you grow up with It never occurred to me that this constitutional mandate would be removed from a public oath because Congress didn't remember to include it in updated legislation. Moreover, that no one caught the error from the creation and passing of the legislation to its printing, distribution and implementation. Amazing and sad.

  5. Let's see: riddled with Dominionist crazies (there's a longish history of reporting about jewish and mainstream-christian chaplains being forced out, especially about the Air Force Academy), suffering serious morale problems in sub-branches responsible for the storage, maintenance and firing of nuclear weapons, and beset with a culture where officers think that faking inspections on duty and cheating casinos off duty are plausible things to do.

    What could possibly go wrong?

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