Oath Offense?

The Long, Complicated History Of 'So Help Me God' In The Military

Former U.S. Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who spent 22 years in the U.S. Army before being forced into retirement amid a scandal, claims anyone who wants to serve in the armed forces but won’t say the words “so help me God” as part of the enlistment oath isn’t a real American.

“I proudly and honorably took the oath of office as a commissioned officer several times and also as a Member of Congress,” West said on his website in September. “That’s what Americans do.”

West’s comments were in reference to a recent controversy out of Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, where an anonymous atheist airman who wanted to reenlist was initially prevented from doing so because he refused to say the part of the enlistment oath that includes the words “so help me God.”

Although the matter has since been resolved thanks in part to a letter from Americans United, and the anonymous airman eventually reenlisted, this incident is yet another tale of the problems caused when religion and government mix.

When it comes to military oaths of allegiance, however, it was not always this way. America’s military oaths were originally secular, but it is interesting to note that they were altered to include God primarily during times of trouble in the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Cold War.     

The concept of soldiers taking an oath of allegiance prior to the commencement of their service dates to at least ancient Rome. Known as the sacramentum, the purpose of the oath was to formally bind soldiers to their generals and establish the ground rules for military service – namely that a soldier must obey all orders no matter what.

Since the power of many Roman emperors was based largely in their military might rather than their personal popularity, such oaths took on real significance. In fact, some scholars have argued that Roman soldiers had a quasi-religious obligation toward their leaders, with the sacramentum providing evidence of this immense level of devotion.

Later periods followed a similar pattern regarding oaths in that they were mainly about promising fidelity to an individual, usually a monarch, rather than to a state or a body of laws, such as the U.S. Constitution. Since the Founding Fathers abhorred monarchies, they sought to break with tradition and excluded specific leaders from the enlistment oaths in the United States.

But the Founders lived in a time of upheaval; given the very real prospect that the American Revolution might not succeed in the early years, the first oaths were modified several times in a short period. Some of these included God, some did not.

The very first oath for enlisted soldiers, passed as part of the creation of the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, made no mention of a deity: “I _____ have, this day, voluntarily enlisted myself, as a soldier, in the American continental army, for one year, unless sooner discharged: And I do bind myself to conform, in all instances, to such rules and regulations, as are, or shall be, established for the government of the said Army.”    

That oath was soon modified, just four days after Gen. George Washington won his first battle of the American Revolution, at Harlem Heights on the northern end of Manhattan. On September 20, 1776, the Continental Congress approved an oath that, once again, made no reference to God.

The new oath read, “I _____ swear (or affirm as the case may be) to be true to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies opposers whatsoever; and to observe and obey the orders of the Continental Congress, and the orders of the Generals and officers set over me by them.”

But just one month later, things had changed. Following a naval defeat of Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold (who later defected to the British) on Oct. 11 at Valcour Island on Lake Champlain in New York and a loss for Col. John Glover at the Battle of Pell’s Point in what is now the Bronx on Oct. 18, it was evident the Continental Army had its hands full.

Three days after Glover’s defeat, a new oath for officers was approved by the Continental Congress. It concluded with the words “so help me God,” making it the first version of an American military oath with a religious reference.

That oath, which applied only to officers, read in part: “[T]hat the people [of the 13 states] owe no allegiance or obedience to George the third, king of Great Britain; and I renounce, refuse and abjure any allegiance or obedience to him; and I do swear that I will, to the utmost of my power, support, maintain, and defend the said United States against the said king, George the third, and his heirs and successors, and his and their abettors, assistants and adherents; and will serve the said United States in the office of _____, which I now hold, and in any other office which I may hereafter hold by their appointment, or under their authority, with fidelity and honour, and according to the best of my skill and understanding. So help me God.” 

And so the officers’ pledge remained for two years. The Americans had shown their determination to fight, but the situation was grim. Washington’s army spent the winter of 1777-78 camped at Valley Forge. It was a miserable time, as the future president’s force was beset by unusual cold, inadequate lodging and supply shortages.

Indeed, a letter from Washington written Feb. 7, 1778, painted a bleak picture: “The spirit of desertion among the Soldiery, never before rose to such a threatening height, as at the present time. The murmurs on account of Provisions are become universal, and what may ensue, if a better prospect does not speedily open, I dread to conjecture.”

That same month, the Continental Congress once again made minor changes to the oath for officers – but kept “so help me God.”

Of course, the oaths created during the revolutionary period predated the U.S. Constitution, meaning there was no First Amendment binding the Continental Congress. But once the Constitution was in force, the Founding Fathers saw fit to exclude God from the very first version of the United States’ Army oath. It was approved Sept. 29, 1789, and it was very similar to the 1775 oath. It also included a section in which soldiers must “swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the constitution of the United States.”

For the next 161 years, soldiers enlisting in the U.S. Army recited the 1789 version of the oath. Not so for the men who commanded them, however. First there was a slight modification in 1830, but the most significant move came in July 1862 when U.S. officers were first required to say “so help me God.”

That change occurred at a time when the Civil War was not going well for the United States. In the spring of that year, President Abraham Lincoln hoped he could end the war quickly by capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond, Va., so he dispatched Maj. Gen. George McClellan and approximately 65,000 men of the Army of the Potomac to fight its way there from Washington, D.C.

During what would become known as the Peninsula Campaign, McClellan proved unworthy of the task as he was consistently outmatched and outwitted by his Confederate opponents, including Gen. Robert E. Lee. By the end of June, McClellan was forced to withdraw to Washington in defeat. His army suffered more than 25,000 casualties over a period of four months. So it was under adverse circumstances that government officials once again interjected God into public life, even though it was constitutionally dubious to do so.

(The changes to the officers’ oath in 1862 didn’t end with God; the federal government also sought to weed out Confederates and southern sympathizers by inserting the words: “I…do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I have never borne arms against the United States since I have been a citizen thereof; that I have voluntarily given no aid, countenance, counsel, or encouragement to persons engaged in armed hostility thereto; that I have neither sought nor accepted nor attempted to exercise the functions of any office whatsoever under any authority or pretended authority in hostility to the United States.…”)    

It was not until 1962, however, that all enlisted soldiers had to recite “so help me God” in the official Army oath. This was, of course, the height of the Cold War, a time when America’s government actively tried to distance itself from the supposedly “godless” communists of the Soviet Union. But according to Chris Rodda of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), change also came about, at least officially, for the sake of consistency: Congress wanted the enlisted oath to reflect the oath for officers, which had long included “so help me God.”

As for the Air Force, which was a branch of the U.S. Army until 1947, it adopted the same religious oath in 1962 to comply with the change made in the army. 

Although the addition of God to a government oath pleases the Religious Right, it has also caused a great deal of controversy. Seemingly not content with requiring enlistees and officers to take a religious oath before beginning their formal service, the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1984 added “so help me God” to its pre-existing honor code.

The code had been around since 1959, but retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Hans Mueh, now athletic director at the Air Force Academy, said a serious cheating scandal showed the code wasn’t taken seriously.

“In 1984, we had a situation in a Physics 411 course that resulted in widespread allegations of cheating,” Mueh said. “It was so widespread that the superintendent, Lt. Gen. Skip Scott, suspended the code and granted amnesty for a short period of time to allow all cadets to report previous violations of their personal honor.…”

So, Mueh added, the Academy chose to attach an oath to the code and “[T]o  add more seriousness to the oath, we decided to mirror the commissioning oath and add the words, ‘so help me, God.’”

Not everyone was pleased with this addition, especially give the absence of God from other military academy oaths. So following a complaint from MRFF, the Academy made use of the God language optional.

“Here at the Academy, we work to build a culture of dignity and respect, and that respect includes the ability of our cadets, Airmen and civilian Airmen to freely practice and exercise their religious preference  — or not,” Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, the academy’s superintendent, said in an October 2013 statement. 

Even with that matter settled at the Academy, it still appears the Air Force has some work to do when it comes to inclusion. In August, when the atheist airman was denied the opportunity to reenlist because he would not say “so help me God,” the American Humanist Association and Americans United wrote letters to the Pentagon, asking that the airman be permitted to re-join without being forced to swear to God. The Air Force claimed its hands were tied – only Congress had the right to accommodate an atheist.

That did not sit well with AU.

“Lest there be any confusion, the U.S. Constitution trumps conflicting requirements from federal statutes: ‘a law repugnant to the constitution is void,’ and ‘courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument,’” AU’s letter stated, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court.  

Not surprisingly, the Religious Right jumped on the soldier and defended the oath.

“There is no place in the United States military for those who do not believe in the Creator who is the source of every single one of our fundamental human and civil rights,” Bryan Fischer, the director of issues analysis for the American Family Association wrote. “Serving in the military is a privilege, not a constitutional right. And it should be reserved for those who have America’s values engraved on their hearts. A man who doesn’t believe in the Creator the Founders trusted certainly can live in America without being troubled for being a fool. But he most certainly should not wear the uniform.”

But thanks to public pressure, the Air Force reversed course in September.

“We take any instance in which airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our airmen’s rights are protected.”

Critics of mandatory oaths point out that such controversies could be avoided if all military oaths dropped the words “so help me God,” a move the Founding Fathers would likely support.

“So, why don’t we just get back to the intent of the founders…?” Rodda said in an article for The Huffington Post. “The founders who wrote the first military oath under the Constitution in 1789 did not include the words ‘So help me God,’ so their intent was obviously that these words not be part of the oath.”