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Conscientious Objector: I’m an ROTC Cadet entering my senior year, which means that it is time to start planning my commissioning ceremony as I transition into officership in the Army. This ceremony is centered on the oath of officership, which (of course) includes the phrase “so help me god.” Overall, this ceremony is more for my family (parents and grandparents) than for me, and they are devout Christians whereas I obviously am not. For this reason, I have been debating whether or not to include “so help me god”.
Further compounding my hesitation to omit are the intense (unconstitutional) evangelism of our battalion commander and the strong religious beliefs of the man (a State Representative I am friends with) to serve as my first salute.
Integrity is an army value, and I hold it dear, but if there isn’t a god to help me regardless, what does it matter if I include it? Would I be wrong to undermine my beliefs in order to appease my family (half of whom I have not “come out” to as secular)?
I checked in with AHA legal director David Niose. In the past, the AHA got involved when cadets at the Air Force Academy didn’t want to say “under god,” and as a result, the Air Force changed their oath regulations. If at any point you’d like to pursue the legality of including “so help me god” in the oath or of your battalion commander’s on-the-job evangelism, please get in touch with David at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As David noted, however, you don’t seem to be asking a legal question in this letter. Rather, you’re torn for personal/ethical reasons whether to utter the words “so help me god” in the presence of your religious family, commander, and State Representative.
I’m wondering if you will be speaking (or not) individually or in a group reciting in unison. If part of a group, you could simply omit the words and no one, or hardly anyone, would notice (unless everyone decided to omit them—now that would be special!).
But if you will have all eyes and ears on you alone, you’d be making a statement and possibly causing a stir by not saying those words. Conversely, no one except you and those who know that you are secular will particularly notice if you just go with the flow, repeating the words or tweaking them to something like “so help me good.”
The course of least resistance is lip service. Everything is smooth, and no one is disturbed—except for you, but you would be whichever way you decide to go. But you may find you will regret not taking a stand, especially since half your family is aware of your convictions. What would happen if, before the ceremony, you were to mention your secularism to the other half, or at least to your parents? Do you think that would that make things better or worse overall, and for you in particular?
On the other hand, this ceremony could be a great opportunity for you to signal to others that you’re secular—not by anything you say, but by what you don’t say. You could omit the whole “so help me god” phrase, or just the word “god.” You might be surprised by how many witnesses don’t even notice what you didn’t say.
That’s my preferred course of action: Just assertively, confidently, matter-of-factly omit the offending phrase or word—without a word to anyone in advance. But you have to do what feels most appropriate to you, and take into account the impact within your family and on your career, along with your sense of integrity. Integrity is not just an army value but a universal one. But the military also values conformity to its chain of command and traditions, as well as backbone—two traits that may sometimes be in direct conflict with each other. You have to decide if this is the moment to make a point about your beliefs or just fall in line for the occasion and express your own convictions another day.