Coffin, 10-5-2014

My Word: Atheists, conscience and God’s name

JimCoffin(Orlando Sentinel, October 5, 2014)

By James Coffin

Atheists rightfully should not be kept from military service, a Christian clergyman writes.

An atheist airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada recently wasn’t allowed to re-enlist because he refused to sign an oath containing the phrase “so help me God.”

Initially, Air Force personnel reported that enlistees used to be allowed to opt out of the oath’s appeal to deity, but the provision had been withdrawn on Oct. 30, 2013. The Air Force claimed that only Congress could reinstate it.

However, when the American Humanist Association and the media became involved, the Air Force sought legal counsel and reverted to the former practice. But that didn’t please some Christians.

As a U.S citizen and a member of the Christian clergy, my advice to my fellow Christians is to consider two sets of principles: the law of the land and our Christian faith.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution seems clear: Government shouldn’t be in the business of either promoting religion or preventing people from following their conscientious convictions. Article VI says: “[N]o religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust …”

The third commandment says: “You shall not misuse [take in vain] the name of the Lord your God.” I think that prohibits attaching God’s name to anything that doesn’t deserve to have God’s name attached. In fact, misusing God’s name is such a severe offense that “the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”

From my perspective, if I seek to deprive atheists of their livelihood and the chance to serve their nation unless they call on God — when they don’t believe God even exists — I would be aiding and abetting the misuse of God’s name. What kind of God could possibly be honored by such coercion to make such a phony declaration? The Scriptures say, “The Lord detests lying lips.”

There’s also that teaching we call the golden rule: Treat others the way you’d want to be treated if the tables were turned. Would I as a Christian want government officials to threaten me with job loss unless I pay homage to a deity I don’t believe in?

I’d suggest that between the mandates of the U.S. Constitution and the teachings of Christianity, there’s more than a compelling reason to protect freedom of conscience.

Even for atheists.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.