The United States Air Force Academy announced this week that cadets would were not required to say “So help me God” at the end of their honor oath. The Academy’s Web site includes a story noting that this is nothing new.
Across the internet, news outlets falsely reported that this was a new development. The Huffington Post’s story on the “change” included criticism that cadets desiring to omit the optional portion could feel pressured not to do so, while some conservatives responded to the idea that the offending portion of the oath would be excised by asking lamenting the decline of Christianity in the military.
This commentary all ignores the constitutional element of the issue.
The short of it is that while publicly reiterating that “So help me God” is optional was preferable to letting people continue under the misimpression that it was not, neither complies with the Constitution’s express policy on the matter. Article VI of the Constitution says, in relevant part, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This answers the question: no mention of religion may be part of any oath required for assumption of any office in the Federal Government.
You might think that taking an oath was not a “religious Test.” You would be mistaken. Test oaths, as they were called, were precisely the kind of religious tests that were required in most of the American colonies prior to the Revolution. They were the ones with which the Framers and Ratifiers were most familiar.
In general, colonial test oaths said something to the effect that “No foreign power, prince, or potentate [should] have any authority, civil or religious, in [name of colony].” Their purpose here, as in Britain, was to exclude Catholics—who could not say that they did not believe any foreign prince (the pope was then prince of the Papal States) should have any religious authority in [name of colony]—from holding public office.
This was a significant concern in 1787-90. One signer of the Declaration of Independence, Marylander Charles Carroll, represented his state in the Continental Congress even though his Catholicism disqualified him from voting or holding state office at home. Britain had a long history of barring Catholics from public life and imposing disabilities on Protestants who dissented from the official Church of England/Anglican Church. Several states still had test oaths of various types as the Philadelphia Convention met.
Requiring cadets to say “So help me God,” then, would run directly afoul of Article VI. It is a good thing that the Department of the Air Force has determined upon its policy of not requiring this. What about leaving the option open?
That is the academy’s current policy. It, too, violates Article VI. After all, what can be the purpose or practical effect of such an option other than to allow cadets to identify themselves as vocal theists of one stripe or another, and thus to pressure their fellow cadets to do the same? This is precisely the kind of exercise the constitutional provision was intended to prohibit.
Opponents of this recent change in policy have chalked it up to a secularizing trend in American life and government. I certainly agree with them that there has been such a trend. In two of my books, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution and (with Tom Woods) Who Killed the Constitution?, I have shown that insofar as it relates to the state governments, this trend has been unconstitutional. However, federal courts’ wrongdoing ought not to blind us to the fact that Article VI’s test oath provision and the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses were meant to ensure that our Federal Government would not establish a religion, not discriminate according to religion, and not interfere with the free exercise of religion.
Therefore, two cheers to the Obama Administration. Not requiring “So help me God” was a step in the right direction.
Kevin R. C. Gutzman is the New York Times best-selling author of four books. These include his latest title, James Madison and the Making of America. Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University, Gutzman holds a bachelor’s degree, a master of public affairs degree, and a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin, as well as an MA and a PhD in American history from the University of Virginia.