UPDATE: The Air Force backed down, and allowed the airman to re-enlist by omitting the “so help me God” portion of the oath. Bravo, but it’s a shame it had to go down the way it did.
Seriously. This is about religion, so you should probably go back to whatever you were just doing. This is an opinion piece, and I’m entitled to mine. So.
I was aghast at today’s USA Today article explaining how an Air Force airman was denied re-enlistment for refusing to finish his enlistment oath. As an atheist, he objected to the “so help me God” portion of the oath, which the Air Force says is mandated by statue.
It’s such a crock, I can’t help but wonder who in the military is using this to make some kind of spiteful jab at Congress or the administration. Everyone knows that both the First Amendment and Article VI of the Constitution makes such a requirement patently illegal. I’m sure there are plenty of devout service members in religions other than Christianity who would also object to the oath, and I know there are plenty of Christian sects that object to any kind of oathmaking to God. Surely we’re not trying to exclude all of them from the military, right? And it seems a little disingenuous anyway. I mean, a truly devout Christian, who perhaps would have no objections to making an oath unto God, would also feel a bit nervous about the whole “thou shalt not kill” thing, right? Killing being a sort of implied requirement of joining the military?
According to our basic precepts of government, as outlined in the Constitution, our government cannot prescribe or dictate someone’s religion to them, and this USAF fiasco-in-the-making certainly seems like an attempt to do just that.
This is the kind of news story that gets people up in arms about completely different religious-related things, and does so incorrectly. While our government is barred from dictating or establishing a religion, it is not barred from recognizing religions (plural), nor is it barred from incorporating religious precepts into government – provided it does so in a way that doesn’t force someone to join said religion. That “thou shalt not kill” bit, for example, is a pretty important underlying thing in our laws, which are not a big fan of citizens killing each other. In fact, Christianity’s Ten Commandments pretty much outline the core concepts that underpin the majority of our oldest and most significant laws. So it’s not like religion is unimportant, from a governance perspective.
But this whole “the government and religion can’t co-exist” gets taken too far, as (I feel) in this other USA Today article from a few days ago. Putting a cross or other religiously-significant monument in a public place isn’t necessarily violating the separation of church and state. Such a monument could easily be a simple cultural acknowledgement of the role religion has played in our country – which was, keep in mind, founded in part by folks seeking religious freedom. The cross in this Indiana state park doesn’t in any way detract from anyone’s use of the park, and it doesn’t “promote Christianity” any more than having “in God we Trust” printed on our money promotes Christianity. Atheists manage to be atheists while also spending money, so it’s difficult to see how a cross, on a war memorial, could be negatively impacting anyone.
And putting a cross on a veterans’ memorial doesn’t make the entire park into a religious shrine. That’s a ridiculous overstatement. It’s like saying a county council meeting has become a church, simply because it opens with the Pledge of Allegiance (which also includes the word “God,” something that’s cause no end of bickering in the past couple of decades).
The problem with this “remove religion at all costs” is that it’s just as wrong as trying to shove religion down someone’s throat. The idea that, in a country based on religious freedom (it was the first thing we added to the Constitution, remember), you can’t display your religion, is just ridiculous to me. Religious freedom doesn’t mean you don’t have to look at anything you disagree with. It means the government can’t tell you what to believe in. Your fellow citizens are welcome to try and convert you to their viewpoint – that’s in the First Amendment, too. You also have the non-enumerated freedom to walk away and not listen.
You have a right to live in this country and practice whatever legitimate religion, or lack thereof, you wish. You do not have a right to force other people to join you – and that includes forcing them to join you in atheism. You do have the right, in a public venue, to stand up and proselytize – that’s a basic First Amendment protected speech thing – and that proselytizing could well including promoting atheism.
One of the biggest problems we have in our American culture today is a lack of respect, and a lack of tolerance, for other people’s perspectives. While I don’t want the government forcing any religion down my throat, I must not have a problem with other people practicing, displaying, and promoting their religions. I cannot find it in me to get upset about displays like the one in the Indiana state park, simply because Christianity – and other religions – are a part of our culture, whether I follow that religion or not. I’m not out to revise history by removing God from every possible public venue, because it wouldn’t be true.
And there’s a downside to these arguments. Christians increasingly feel attacked from every side simply for practicing their religion. It’s suddenly becoming unfashionable to be religious. As a result, they quite understandably push back – often in significant ways. You take my cross out of the park, I fight against civil liberties that contradict my religion. The rhetoric and intolerance simply escalates to ridiculousness. It’s unproductive. For the life of me, I just can’t get upset about a carving of a cross in a state park. If you get upset about it, maybe stand next to it and preach atheism or whatever you’re into. Equal time.
While the government has no business forcing an airman to say, “so help me God” in order to keep his government job, we as citizens don’t have (I feel) any right to force each others’ personal beliefs underground. If it isn’t detracting from your personal liberties, and if it isn’t demonstrably harming anyone, then let it go. Accept that we’re all different, and that we don’t all need to live according to some standardized script.
Our increasingly constant bickering, simply because those people over there don’t live like I do, and I don’t like that, is becoming annoying, distracting, divisive, and incredibly counterproductive. I almost think we should outlaw national news organizations simply so we’re not all so damn aware of all the differences going on around us!
Just because I don’t eat soft shell crab doesn’t mean I object to seeing it on the menu, and if we’d all spend less time worrying about small-time arguments like this, we’d all be a lot happier. And we could focus on the important stuff.
Anyway, there you are. Have a good weekend ;). Comments welcome, but keep ’em polite.