The United States Air Force decided to dump So Help Me God from their enlistment and re-enlistment oaths after a lawsuit threat arose from the American Humanist Association. I wrote about this controversy a while back. It was clear at the time that the military included So Help Me God based more on tradition and bureaucratic rigidity than from some “narrow-minded” religious obstinancy.
This new ruling seems to confirm this. The Air Force, Navy, and Marines have now removed the necessity for saying So Help Me God, though they still allow enlistees to say it voluntarily.
The American Humanist Association says that the requirement to say So Help Me God amounted to a religious test for the holding of civil office—which would be in contradiction to the Constitution.
But there is a good reason to withhold public office or civil service positions from atheists. Most of the original state constitutions had a simple religious test for holding office. The test usually involved two things: belief in God and a belief in an afterlife with eternal consequences for the deeds of this life.
You can imagine that such a belief, if it were authentic, would exercise a restraining influence on a person’s choices. That’s why most of the states had religious tests even after the Constitution was ratified.
So why did the Constitution include the “No Religious Test” clause? Oliver Ellsworth, the third Chief Justice of the United States, explained:
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.
So there you have it. The Founding Fathers did not intend to have a secular government as such. They just didn’t think the civil government the best judge and protector of authentic religion. But the fact remains that atheism has never been a very good foundation for ethical rectitude, no matter what atheists may say. As Dostoevsky implied, “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted.” That’s not exactly the most sound foundation for faithful public service. God help us.