In a shift toward inclusivity, the Air Force Academy has announced that cadets will no longer be required to recite “So help me God” as part of the school’s Honor Oath. The decision followed a complaint by Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
The Religious Right greeted the announcement with predictable rancor. And as they always do, they’ve rallied around their Orwellian definition of religious liberty. Somehow, making this sectarian clause optional discriminates against Christian cadets.
Already inflamed by reports an Army instructor had labeled it a hate group, the American Family Association blasted its supporters with calls for action. Their demands were simple: force cadets to use religious language -- in the name of freedom.
“Urge Air Force Academy Commandant Brig. Gen. Gregory J. Lengyel to preserve religious liberty by defending the oath and recommending the Academy keep the current language intact,” the AFA beseeched supporters.
The AFA isn’t alone in its skewed take on the oath.
As reported by Right Wing Watch, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council took to his radio show to accuse Weinstein – and the Academy – of anti-Christian bias. “Weinstein has been trying to drive evangelicals out of the Academy for over a decade,” he told listeners.
To Perkins, the Academy’s decision betrays the foundation of the democracy its cadets are trained to protect.
“Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson said the oath is being reviewed because the Academy values an inclusive environment that promotes dignity and respect for all,” he railed. “Really? Does that include those like General George Washington who initiated the phrase, ‘So help me God,’ or does that inclusion only make room for those who want to dismantle America's Christian heritage?”
Perkins’ claim that Washington originated the phrase is reiterated by FRC senior fellow Ken Blackwell. Blackwell expands on the story for Townhall.com, writing that Washington uttered the phrase while being sworn in as our nation’s first president.
It’s a dramatic tale, but it bears no resemblance to fact. The story of George Washington and his Christian oath has been thoroughly debunked. There’s no historical evidence to support the assertion that Washington used the phrase when taking the oath; in fact, a legislative committee headed by James Madison excluded the words when drafting it.
We know how Madison felt about separation of church and state. “The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion,” he once wrote.
It’s unlikely, then, that Madison would draft a sectarian oath. Or that Washington, a strict constitutionalist, would suddenly alter it at his inauguration. The simple truth is that Washington did not originate the phrase, and it’s disingenuous for the Religious Right to suggest otherwise.
The Air Force Academy also can’t lay claim to a long tradition of using the religious oath. The original oath, adopted in 1959, was secular. Academy leadership added the God reference in 1984.
Perkins and Blackwell are either unaware of these facts or have deliberately chosen to ignore them in order to perpetuate the myth that America is a “Christian nation.” They, like their friend David Barton, invent history just like they’ve invented a Christian national identity.
There’s another factor to consider, too. The Air Force Academy has long faced criticism for its overwhelmingly evangelical Christian atmosphere. A 2005 study found that the school, based in the evangelical stronghold of Colorado Springs, harbored a campus rife with inappropriate proselytization. As recently as 2010, the Academy’s leadership has been criticized for allowing this sectarian environment to flourish at a publicly funded school.
The school’s concern for inclusivity is long overdue. And let’s remember: Cadets who want to can still say “So help me God” as part of the oath. Those who don’t want to include it may omit it. The matter rests with the individual as guided by his or her conscience.
That is where it has always belonged. The new rules respect freedom for all, and that’s a constitutional reality the Religious Right’s bogus history can’t erase.