September 19, 2014

When Headlines Get It Wrong

If I had not read earlier stories on the situation that led up to this story, I would be outraged by this headline. But then again, I am outraged – by an editor slapping this inaccurate headline on a story.

Air Force dumps ‘so help me God’ from enlistment oath

The thing is, the Air Force did not “dump” the phrase from the oath. It instead rightly made the phrase optional so as to conform with the Constitution.

And I’m not even talking about conforming with the First Amendment. I’m talking about conforming with Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution.

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

As noted in this excellent analysis of this provision, from the earliest days this has been understood to forbid even the requirement that they profess a belief in a Supreme Being. Consider words of Oliver Ellsworth, one of the drafters of the Constitution and third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

In his defense of the religious test clause, Mr. Ellsworth first explained what was meant by the term “religious test”:
“A religious test is an act to be done, or profession to be made, relating to religion (such as partaking of the sacrament according to certain rites and forms, or declaring one’s belief of certain doctrines,) for the purpose of determining whether his religious opinions are such, that he is admissible to a publick office.”

He then proceeded to examine the most basic religious test possible and to demonstrate that it would be wrong for us to have such a test in America.

“If any test-act were to be made, perhaps the least exceptionable would be one, requiring all persons appointed to office to declare at the time of their admission, their belief in the being of a God, and in the divine authority of the scriptures … But I answer: His making a declaration of such a belief is no security at all. For suppose him to be an unprincipled man, who believes neither the word nor the being of God; and to be governed merely by selfish motives; how easy is it for him to dissemble! how easy is it for him to make a public declaration of his belief in the creed which the law prescribes; and excuse himself by calling it a mere formality. This is the case with the test-laws and creeds in England … In short, test-laws are utterly ineffectual: they are no security at all … If they exclude any persons, it will be honest men, men of principle, who will rather suffer an injury, than act contrary to the dictates of their consciences. If we mean to have those appointed to public offices, who are sincere friends to religion, we, the people who appoint them, must take care to choose such characters; and not rely upon such cob-web barriers as test-laws are.”

We insist that members of our armed forces defend the Constitution – it is important that we do not make their enlistment contingent upon an oath that violates the provisions of that document. Therefore this change merely allows an airman to avoid having to violate the Constitution in order to be allowed to defend it – while still permitting others to bind themselves before a deity in which they believe. To this Constitution-loving Christian, that seems to be the perfect way in to honor both God and the Constitution.

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