On a Wing, But Not On a Prayer

Air Force Academy makes homage to God optional

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Carol Lawrence / U.S. Air Force / Reuters

A cloud of smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire rises from the south behind the Air Force Academy's Cadet Chapel evacuation procedures in Colorado Springs, on June 27, 2012 photograph released on July 1, 2012.

While there may be no atheists in foxholes, the Air Force Academy has decided there will be no mandatory God in the heavens.

The academy — at 7,258 feet above sea level, the closest of all the nation’s military schools to God’s realm — has long had a reputation as the most Christian of the nation’s military learning institutions.

But the Colorado Springs, Colo., academy has decided to make the “so help me God” coda to its cadet oath optional after a complaint from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

The academy’s original honor code dates to 1959 and reads:

We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.

But it was modified following a 1984 cheating scandal to read:

We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, so help me God.

The phrase “so help me God” was tacked on “to add more seriousness to the oath,” according to a former faculty member. Apparently, there was a subset of Air Force cadets who would cheat absent God as a wingman.

(The formal American embrace of religion in civic government is a fairly recent phenomenon: “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. “In God We Trust” became the nation’s official motto in 1956, replacing the de facto motto E pluribus unum, Latin for “Out of many, one.” In 1957, “In God We Trust” was added to U.S. paper currency. If one were to surmise that this spike in federal reverence were due to the nation’s Cold War with the godless Soviet Union, one would be, literally, right on the money.)

“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,” academy superintendent Lieut. General Michelle D. Johnson, said in a statement. “So, in the spirit of respect, cadets may or may not choose to finish the Honor Oath with ‘So help me God.'”

Cadets take the oath at the end of their basic training, and annually thereafter before graduating as Air Force 2nd lieutenants after four years. Similar oaths at the Army’s West Point and Navy’s academy at Annapolis have no such religious component.

Opinions were mixed among posters over at the independent Air Force Times newspaper.

“About time,” poster Eric Taylor noted. “Pledging to some mythological being is so 2000 years ago.”

Not so fast, countered Paul Hartnagel. “I guarantee that when they flame out and start going to ground at mach 1,” he said, “they WILL be calling on God.”