Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Living an Oath

“I, David Glenn Pyle, having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of Second Lieutenant, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.” (DA Form 71, 1 August 1959, for officers.)

Today is the one-year anniversary of my oath and commissioning as an Officer in the United States Army. The ceremony in which I raised my right hand and swore to “support and defend the constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic… so help me God” was held in a sacred place for me, First Unitarian Church of Chicago. I took that oath in front of the faculty, staff, and students of my seminary, the Meadville Lombard Theological School. Several UUA denominational officials were in attendance. My Zen teacher was there as well, as was my supervising and teaching minister. My having taken the oath was announced in our denominational magazine.

Taking the oath was an expression of my Liberal Religious Faith.

I agonized for weeks over whether or not to take the oath. I had entered into the process of becoming a Military Chaplain Candidate expecting it to take up to a year… and yet within three months I was selected, appointed, and had the commissioning oath sitting on my desk. I went back and re-read the Constitution of the United States over and over, for I was taking an oath to dedicate my life to its defense. I was not unfamiliar with it… I do have a degree in Political Science… but studying it in a constitutional law class is different than dedicating your life to it.

I had taken a similar oath years before as an enlisted soldier. But I was eighteen then, and I barely graduated from High School. I had the excuse of inexperience and ignorance… I certainly did not have it now.

I took apart the oath, and looked at it piece by piece. Still concerned, I took apart the Constitution and looked at it piece by piece… and realized that the Constitution was an expression of the same spirit of liberalism that burned at the core of my Unitarian Universalist faith… freedom of religion, freedom of speech, separation of powers, the sovereignty of the people, the right to privacy, freedom of association, equality, justice, and so much more lay in its depths.

I realized that taking this oath was not just about my country, but about my religious faith… something that I hold amazingly dear for someone who once thought he had none.

In exploring my Unitarian Universalist faith, I have learned that I cannot carry a weapon. I’m not sure whether or not I could take the life of another, even in my own defense. Not all UU’s, in uniform or out would agree with me on this, and that is as it should be. But was that what the oath was asking me to do? Is killing and using a weapon the only way to “support and defend the constitution”?

This morning, the anniversary of my oath, I read an article in the Armed Forces Journal about the growing problem in the military of Evangelical Christians using their government granted authority as leaders in our nation’s military to spread their religious faith. It is a problem that I have experienced during my own service (both enlisted and commissioned).

The article recommended that the military require a new oath be taken by leaders, in addition to the traditional oath. Here is that oath…

The Oath of Equal Character
(Note: We have written the oath from a Christian’s perspective but would expect “Muslim,” “Jew,” “atheist,” “Buddhist,” “Hindu,” “Wiccan,” “nontheist” or any other chosen identification to be used as applicable.)

“I am a (Christian). I will not use my position to influence individuals or the chain of command to adopt (Christianity), because I believe that soldiers who are not (Christian) are just as trustworthy, honorable and good as those who are. Their standards are as high as mine. Their integrity is beyond reproach. They will not lie, cheat or steal, and they will not fail when called upon to serve. I trust them completely and without reservation. They can trust me in exactly the same way.”

Is this what it has come to? Is this how far we have fallen in our understanding of the Constitution?

My first reaction was “Well, let me stick “Unitarian Universalism” in there, find some judge, and take the oath”. But then I got to thinking… doesn’t the oath I’ve already taken cover all of this? When did the First Amendment get taken out of the Constitution?

The first Amendment to the constitution says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

This was not the First Amendment because it came first in an alphabetical listing. It is not the first thing the Bill of Rights says because they flipped a coin. It is the first, foundational Right upon which this country, upon which the idea of American society and democracy rests. It is also a clear expression of the religious freedom that rests at the heart of my Unitarian Universalist Faith.

I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. While our nation undoubtedly has foreign enemies, I don’t hear many of them threatening our Constitution… but I certainly see signs of domestic threats to this document. Those who seem to think they can use their positions of military authority to coerce others to convert to their religious faith are threatening the Constitution, whether they realize they are doing it or not.

The oath I took is clear… and I do not need another oath. Religious pluralism and religious freedom are at the heart of this nation, and they are at the heart of the Constitution, and they are at the heart of my call into the Military Chaplaincy. We don’t need another oath… we need to commit ourselves to living up to the oaths we have already taken.

Yours in Faith,


(You can read the Armed Forces Journal Article here)

4 Thoughts on “Living an Oath

  1. Patrick McLaughlin on Thursday January 10, 2008 at 23:55 +0000 said:

    You are, of course, correct. Technically. In law.

    The problem is that some people need that laid out in simple black and white terms that do not allow them to bend, fold, twist, spindle and mutilate the meaning of the First Amendment. You’ll get the argument that Congress isn’t establishing a religion–it’s just that (“good”) evangelicals are taking the opportunity to witness–using all methods fair and foul–and to get people to convert. Congress isn’t trying to do that. So it’s all legit.

    For those who are willing to cross the line, making it clear and unquestionable what crosses the line is like posting no trespassing notices. It won’t stop them–but they won’t be able to argue that they didn’t know and didn’t mean any harm.

    Damned shame that it’s needful. But I can see the point. How else do you clean up? Going through and weeding out all the people who’ve violated the intent of the First Amendment (and their oath) would be hard–and contentious. You’d have a herd of folks bewailing the “persecution of Christians.”

    Easier to make the line a crystal clear one.

    And lower the boom hard and fast the first (and any other) time that it’s violated. There will be a brief wail, but it’ll be easier to support and enforce. Since the military hasn’t corrected those who’ve violated their oaths in that manner to date, there’s an effective presumption that it must have been ok. Punishing it now will be seen as a purge or a witch hunt.

  2. Patrick, it saddens me that you are right… but I fear in some ways you are, and that is what motivated the authors of the Armed Forces Journal Article. I met a Chaplain Candidate this summer who, at the beginning of our course told me he was only in the miltary to missionize. When confronted with the true purpose of the Chapliancy, he said his denomination had told him just to pay lip service to pluralism long enough to graduate and get into a unit.

    He seemed shocked when I said that, in my opinion, he had falsly taken the oath… turns out he had never even read the U.S. Constitution he had sworn to uphold.

    It just galls me that such a second oath might be necessary, because we have not fully understood the implications of the first.

    Good to see you commenting here at CL! Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever reads anything I write… but I know I can always count on my fellow Meadville Lombardians for support! Perhaps that’s why I am going into the ministry… when I preach a sermon I know I have a captive audience… even though they might be asleep…. 🙂

    Yours in faith,


  3. Patrick McLaughlin on Saturday January 12, 2008 at 23:40 +0000 said:


    “… turns out he had never even read the U.S. Constitution he had sworn to uphold.”

    I can barely fathom that.

    Oaths and laws aren’t really crafted for the benefit of those who are inclined to act in accord with the Golden Rule, etc. They exist to remind those who are more lax–or quite lax–of the expectations and the seriousness of those expectations.

    And they exist to provide a clear line for the time when it becomes necessary to correct and punish those who have violated the expectations.

    And yes, it is galling.

  4. Hi David,
    I’m busier than I like to be – but I wanted to comment on this. Just this morning I responded to an email forwarded to our church’s email list on a particular candidate for president. The forwarder asked, “Is this true? This seems like it could hurt the candidate.”

    Well, it was a smear email about this candidate’s background, claiming this person was a member of a religion that is not Christian. Patently false, as this candidate has been open about his own faith. Whatever his parents’ beliefs are/were are irrelevant. Religious discrimination is being used as a cover for racism.

    People need to be reminded of the religious pluralism that exists in our country! There is no creedal test for the presidency – but some people wish there were. Look at how the Hindu chaplain who tried to offer a prayer in Congress was treated. Look at how the first Muslim in Congress has been treated with suspicion.

    Best to you.

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