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Commentary

by Jeffrey Jay Lowder


This was accepted, but held for lack of space, for publication in the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Vol. 12 No. 3 (Fall 1996).


Military Atheists?

[Disclaimer: This content in no way reflects the opinions, standards, or policy of the United States Air Force Academy or the United States government.]

Freethinkers appear to be a sizable minority in our Armed Forces. According to a recent publication of the United States Air Force, eleven percent of the active duty Air Force - more than thirteen times the combined number of Jewish, Orthodox, Islamic, and Buddhist airmen - do not profess any religious preference [1]. Yet in many ways the military has failed to treat atheists in uniform as members worthy of respect and accommodation. What can be done to correct this deplorable situation?

My Experience

I enrolled in Air Force ROTC (AFROTC) when I started college in 1991. Despite my recent deconversion from Christianity, I had decided to attend Seattle Pacific University (SPU), a Free Methodist university in Seattle, Wash., because I could go there for free, it was close to home, and had a good computer science department. While I was still a high school senior, I had received from Headquarters AFROTC a listing of all colleges and universities - including SPU - offering room and board scholarships to ROTC cadets. After applying for admission to SPU, along with an acceptance letter I was offered a room and board scholarship.

I was not, however, offered SPU's Room and Board Scholarship for ROTC cadets - which only had a 2.6 GPA requirement - because I was not a Christian [2]. Instead I was offered a Presidential Scholarship - which was worth the same amount, but required recipients to maintain a 3.5 GPA. At that time, I was an arrogant high school senior and didn't think much of it. But after my sophomore year at SPU I was not able to maintain a 3.5 GPA and lost the scholarship, costing me a total of $7,500.

That summer I attended AFROTC Field Training - ROTC's version of "boot camp." Here I experienced something I think that every military atheist has had to endure: chapel. I seem to remember that the camp commander tried to accommodate cadets belonging to minority religions, like Mormonism, by allowing them to attend off-base services when on-base services were not available. But if secular cadets chose not to attend chapel, they were expected to work. And no secular cadets complained, of course, because we were at camp and did not want to get an extra thousand pushups for speaking up.

I also remember having to study a "blue book." This book, which we were expected to carry with us at all times, contained information which all cadets were expected to know: the military rank structure, basic aircraft information, the cadet honor code, quotations from famous military leaders, the Oath of Office, etc. It also contained a couple of quotations from the Bible, the Air Force Hymn, and the Christian poem, "High Flight". I was unable, however, to find any references to Thomas Paine or Col. Robert Ingersoll.

Two years later I was finally about to become an Air Force Officer. As someone interested in violations of the Establishment Clause, you can imagine my surprise when I was informed that the words, "So Help Me God," were a mandatory part of the Oath of Office [3]. Such an oath is clearly inappropriate and unconstitutional, for:

  1. it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
  2. it is inconsistent with the Presidential Oath of Office (stated in Article II, Section 1) upon which the Oath of Office is based. [4]
  3. it violates Article VI which states that, "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

I therefore made a formal request that the words, "So Help Me God," be omitted from my Oath of Office. The Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge said she had never had such a request before in all her years in the Air Force and would have to clear it with HQ, but eventually my request was approved. A fellow cadet who had been enlisted for eight years prior to ROTC informed me that she was an agnostic, that she never knew this option existed, and that she planned to exercise it when she was commissioned.


Notes

  1. Air Force Instruction 52-1, Attachment 1 (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Staff Chaplain, Headquarters, United States Air Force, 1992) summarizes the religious grouping status of active duty personnel as follows: 62% Protestant, 26% Catholic, 0.4% Jewish, 0.2% Orthodox, 0.1% Muslim, 0.1% Buddhist, and 11% "No Preference." AFI 52-1 further states that the grouping of Chaplains in 1992 was 71% Protestant, 27% Catholic, 2% Jewish, 1% Orthodox, 0% Muslim, 0% Buddhist, and 0% "No Preference." (Since the publication of AFI 52-1 in 1992, the Air Force has commissioned at least one Muslim chaplain.)
  2. I later learned that in order to be eligible for the scholarship, one must not only be a practicing Christian, but must have held a Church leadership position while in high school.
  3. Every official Air Force publication I have ever seen has stated the Oath of Office as follows: "I, (name), having been appointed a (grade), United States Air Force, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of office upon which I am about to enter, so help me God." Whereas the option to replace the word swear with the word affirm is always acknowledged, I have yet to see any official Air Force publication admit that the words "So Help Me God" are optional. Indeed, not only do official publications fail to the put the optional words "So Help Me God" in parentheses, but they are usually capitalized as well.
  4. "Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: - 'I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.'"

2nd Lt. Lowder graduated, with honors, from Seattle Pacific University in 1995 with a B.S. in computer science. He received his commission in June 1995 and was recognized as a Distinguished Graduate of Air Force ROTC. He is currently assigned to the 10th Communications Squadron at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO where he is the Chief of Network Security.


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