Thursday, September 18, 2014

Out of the Mouths of Babes

The recent "so help me God" controversy in the Air Force brought to mind something that happened closer to home some 30 years ago.  We had just been stationed in NY, and my younger HS freshman daughter was able to earn a scholarship to a very fine Catholic High School, choosing this over the huge, but well rated public school serving our area.  About two weeks into the school year, I received a call from the principal to stop by when I had a chance.  I said I was able to do so that afternoon, and an appointment was made.

I arrived in Sister's office, wondering what might be amiss.  The secretary ushered me in, and after introductory pleasantries, Sister said, "We owe you and your daughter an apology, and even more so, I wish to complement you on the excellent religious conscience you have instilled in her."  Totally confused, I simply said, "Thank you", and waited for more.

Well, it seems that that morning, the students had a chapel service of some sort.  Since there were a fair number of non-Catholics in the school, "active participation" was purely voluntary.  The non-Catholic students did not have to sing, pray aloud, etc.  However, whilst filing into the chapel, it seems that my daughter was the only student in her class that didn't genuflect before entering their assigned pew, an act of "reverence" their home room nun had said was expected of all when she gave them their "conduct in chapel" lecture".  Rather, she made what we Orthodox call a "small reverence", bowing her head and making the Sign of the Cross.  Obviously, she stood out like a sore thumb, and her home room nun took exception and sent her to the principal, as she was still doing this after a couple of obtuse mentions of "proper reverence in chapel".

Sister Principal told me that she had asked my daughter if she had any religious or personal objections to genuflecting, and daughter said, "No, not an objection."  Sister Principal then asked why my daughter refused to genuflect.  My daughter said, "It isn't a refusal, but a choice.  Genuflection is a meaningless action to the Orthodox, Sister.  While not as noticeable, I make what we call a small reverence before the Altar of God in the Chapel.  It shows the same reverence, but just in a manner meaningful to the Orthodox.  I was raised to never do anything before the Altar of God for any reason other than showing Him reverence.  Genuflecting would simply be to show uniformity or to please Sister X, and I think that would make genuflection, in my case, irreverent."

Of course, the Principal was gobsmacked that a freshman had such a solid understanding of reverence, and wanted to offer her praise to such fine parenting.  I had to admit that I and her parish priests had instilled the general notion of reverence, and that my daughter deserved the credit for applying it so well to a real life situation.

So why the above in commenting on the Air Force controversy?  Well, there is the issue of religious freedom that is attacked by requiring non-believers to swear an oath to a deity in which they have no belief.  Myself, I also see the other side of the coin, and here's why: 

On Oct 12, 1960, the officer swearing in a group of us into the Corps began with a short explanation of how solemn the oath is.  Not in "so help me God" terms, but in terms of total subordination to the Constitution, to include, as generations of Marines had done, putting our lives subordinate to and in support of the Constitution.  In short, there is nothing trivial about taking the oath of office.  Not one word, not one concept is to be taken lightly nor with coercion or reservation.

However, it is what he said next that really stuck with me.  He said that we should note that there was no reciprocal oath by the Corps, the government nor the Constitution in return.  Rather, what binds us together is that all Marines swear a common, simple, yet profound oath to support and defend the same Constitution.  Thus, everything we do as Marines, individually and as a Corps, is bound the the individual oaths taken by every Marine since Tun Tavern.  A lawful order by a superior is in execution of that oath, and obeying is equally in execution of that oath.  We have all sworn to be Marines with equal commitment.

So, the other side of the coin, IMHO, is that to require a troop to swear a meaningless 4 words ("so help me God") only serves to trivialize the Oath and the deity.  It adds words and a concept that is effectively meaningless and irreverent, not just to any deity, but to the solemnity of the Oath, itself. It is an oath taken with coercion and/or reservation, and includes a phrase intended only to please those administering the oath, failing to understand that oaths are more than an administrative exercise.  And thus, it is not only an affront to the person making the Oath, but to the Constitution and the deity who's name is being invoked without meaning for the sake of uniformity.  If my use of the deity in my oath is not sincere, then what of the rest of the Oath?


  1. I understand the Secretary of the Air Force has stepped in and allowed that airman to take the oath without the god phrase. She (Secretary Deborah Lee James) will take a lot of flak for that from the God squads. I say God bless her.

    In the pledge of allegiance I usually say 'indivisible' twice. Which gets some strange looks sometimes from younger folks. Not from any atheism and that I have any objections to saying it the new way. It is just that I learned it as a boy without that 'under God' part.

  2. Eh, this reminds me of some goober chaplain who preached a sermon about how Jesus lived the Army Values and how we could as well.

    Far as I can tell, the military does not do religious thought well. I think your essay highlighted my concerns with it. If you believe in the Christian God, how exactly is it appropriate to use Him as a prop to support whatever sort of organization your oath helps bind you too?

    Doesn't Christ have specific things to say against the taking of oaths?

  3. mike- two religious items were introduced to us in school. First, in 1952 was the NY Regents Prayer, a so called "non-denominational", short prayer. Was an option for school districts to use, and after the first year, with enough student resistance, our school district dropped it weekly student "assemblies". Then we got hit with the change in the Pledge of allegiance in 1954. Since we had been sensitized to being "forced" to the introduction of religion in school, many of us simply never recited the words, "under God". And we were religiously observant kids of a variety of denominations. That practice of the obvious silence of a fair number of students continued through graduation. I learned years later, from one of our most respected teachers, a Roman Catholic, that our HS principal had not been comfortable with the Regents Prayer, and cited the number of students remaining silent, as well as his and faculty objections, to convince the Board of Education to drop it. He also said that the principal was not surprised that many students chose not to recite "under God", based on the Regents Prayer reactions. The teacher said that the principal felt that no one should be told how to pray, and that the revised Pledge did border on prayer. The faculty was equally uncomfortable with it all.

    Of course, I "joined up" early on, and learned that it is inappropriate for serving military to recite the "Pledge", as we were serving under a far more solemn Oath. Thus this from AR 600-25, which mirrors all the Services:

    Soldiers may recite the Pledge of Allegiance as noted below in accordance with Section 4, Title 4, United States Code (4 USC 4):

    During military ceremonies, soldiers will not recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
    At official functions, social events, and sporting events, soldiers should:
    When in uniform, outdoors, stand at attention, remain silent, face the flag, and render the hand salute.
    When in uniform, indoors, stand at attention, remain silent, and face the flag.
    When in civilian attire, stand at attention, face the flag with the right hand over the heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Headgear should be removed with the right hand and held over the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart.

    Thus, it wasn't until I retired that the occasion to again recite the Pledge really arose, and I still remain silent at the "under God" point. Old habits die hard.

  4. I'm not going to win points, but here I go anyway: The bible is quite clear in it's denunciation of taking of human life...killing is killing regardless of reasons. Chaplains who spout "Jesus was a motherfucking earmark for how to command a unit in action..." is just shitting out the side of their neck.

    Sorry G-d, forgive my use of earmark.

    In fact, I think preferable, and quite honestly, a far more accurate oath would be as such:

    I "sheerahkahn" willfully and knowingly submit and suborn my rights to the will and directives of the United States Government, and to the Military authorities represented by the Officers appointed to lead and direct me, and all comrades in arms. I willfully and knowingly acknowledge that I will be required, when called up as a direct report to said authorities that I will kill whom I am directed to kill. I willfully and knowingly acknowledge and accept the position of [military branch and rank] without reservation or hesitation. I also willfully and knowingly accept all responsibilities and privileges that come with performing the duties of this contract till said date is accomplished and the contract is considered expired."

    No incitement of G-d, no requirement to slap one side of a holy book while mumbling words that may or may not hold sway over said individual....and it's a legally and binding contract.


  5. sheer- The current Oath effectively is a more concise statement of your proposal. It needs no further elucidation.

    Way back when, the "so help me God" was a generally accepted idiom used to reinforce the solemnity of a given oath, not necessarily a religious statement. The Oath has allowed a choice between "swear" and "affirm" since 1776 to allow for religious preference, Thus, the option to refrain from "so help me God", is not such a radical departure.

    Unfortunately, the Religious Right has hijacked this idiom to further a religious agenda.

    The evangelical camel got its nose under the tent in 1954, when Ike and Congress inserted "under God" in the Pledge to differentiate us from those "Godless Commies". Not from Islam, Budhism, Hinduism or the like. But drawing God onto our side was an insidious first step. In the military, this was tempered for a long time by the predominance of Roman Catholic Chaplains, who knew the difference between "just war" and simply justifying war. The call for dominance we see today of "believers" over "non-believers" in the military is just not a Catholic thing.

  6. During my watch (1960-66), the Corps handled it beautifully. Initial entry as a Pvt was by Oath. Appointment to Commissioned rank was by Oath and the "promulgation" of the Commission. All subsequent promotions were conducted by the "promulgation" of the specific warrant (enlisted and WO or commission (officers). Why the "promulgation"? Because the newly commissioned 2 Lt or a promotion represented a change in the hierarchy of the Corps, and the wording of the Commission or Warrant is a public proclamation of this and a charge to ALL Marines of the new order of things. All promotions were conducted in the appropriate unit formation.

    For simplicity's sake, here is the wording of the Enlisted Promotion Warrant. The Commission is a bit wordier due to the status of a commissioned officer, but the basic principals remain the same:

    To all who see these presents, greetings. Know ye, that reposing special trust and confidence in the fidelity and abilities of John L. Doe 123 45 6789, I do appoint this Marine a Sergeant in the United States Marines Corps to rank as such from the 1st day of November two thousand and two.

    This appointee will therefore carefully and diligently discharge the duties of the grade to which appointed by doing and performing all manner of things thereunto pertaining. And I do strictly charge all personnel of lesser grade to render obedience to appropriate orders. And this appointee is to observe and follow such orders as may be given from time to time by superiors acting according to the rules and articles governing the discipline of the Armed Forces of the United State of America.

    Given under my hand at Headquarters United States Marine Corps this first day of in the year of our Lord two thousand and two.

    The basic principals:
    1. It is a public proclamation to all present
    2. It is an expression of special trust and confidence, as it is granting higher status of responsibility and authority in the hierarchy
    3. It charges the individual to discharge the duties of the new grade
    4. It charges all personnel of lesser grade to render due respect and obedience
    5. It charges the individual to obey the lawful orders of his superiors.

    This isn't just about Sergeant John Doe, it is about the entire Corps, whose hierarchical fabric had just been changed. Thus, at every promotion ceremony, be it to PFC or higher, the appropriate or commission was promulgated to all.

    (The above is offered in memory of Gunnery Sergeant Walter Mead, who gracefully illumined a bunch of us whining Pvts as to why we had to stand through repetitive promulgations of warrants and commissions.)

    How sad it was to then enter the Army and see that many promotions were done "in private" (in a commander's office) or by the simple recitation of the administrative order:

    The following named person is advanced in grade from the rank of XXX to ZZZ.

    The true meaning of a promotion was simply never promulgated.

    However, I did get a chance to bring Gunny Mead's sage counsel to the Army with my first and subsequent commands. Enlisted were promoted in formation by promulgating the appropriately edited words of a Marine warrant, and officers and Warrants were issued new commissions (amazing what unused stuff sits in the AG Pubs Office files) that were also promulgated in formation. Only comments I got were positive.

    You see, it is really about individuals all serving under the same Oath, which binds us to the principals of service and obedience expressed in the promotion warrant or commission. Has nothing to do with any deity. May sound a bit romanticized, but it is really what military service in the US should be all about.

  7. I think my focus is to divorce the two so that one remains where it should be, in the hands of jolly fellows who like the idea of bravery in others but would rather keep to the cheer leading than put their own fat on the frying pan, and the other which really could do without the other sides incessant bullshit.

    But that's just me.


  8. What I find peculiar is that after accepting since its formation that both "swear or affirm" and the use of "so help me God" were a matter of the servicemember's choice, the USAF issued an new instruction last Oct with this option removed. And it was done without consulting DOD, which obviously has allowed all the other services to let troops exercise these options. The conspiracy theorist in me says it's just another stunt by the USAF religious wing nuts.

    Note that the Secretary of the AF beat a hasty retreat, saying, "“We take any instance in which Airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,”