I’ve never really been too bothered by the institutionalized references to deities in cultural songs and oaths. As a Briton, I don’t mind singing “God Save the Queen.” The whole God reference is quite quaint and harmless; I don’t actually mean for God to save anyone when I sing it.
I view it as a simple throwback to our historical roots, and I think that the general irreverence the British public shows the royal family is only bettered by the irreverence they show for God.
However, earlier this year I found myself in the position of swearing an oath to take U.S. citizenship, and for the first time in my life I found myself actually taking issue with a God reference. In retrospect, I think that this is because this was an important life event for me. Taking a new citizenship is a huge undertaking, something nontrivial that I will carry for the rest of my life. I actually felt an emotional importance to this event, and I wanted to be able to earnestly take U.S. citizenship in a meaningful way that I would hold in good conscience with fond memories.
So what was the problem? The oath of allegiance itself is rather dated, having some excellent “Old World” language renouncing foreign princes and potentates. I actually agree with all of the contents, with the exception of the last four words—“so help me God.”
This just did not sit well with me. Here I am about to take citizenship in the freest country in the world, founded by some of the greatest freethinkers to emerge from the era of the enlightenment, and I was being forced to make an oath to a supernatural being. Something was not right.
Luckily, when browsing on this topic on the Internet, I stumbled across a page at the Freedom From Religion Foundation that touched on this precise topic. It explained that the citizenship process allows for the non-religious to alter the oath. Upon further investigation I found the following, from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services:
“If USCIS finds that you are unable to swear the oath using the words ‘on oath,’ you may replace these words with ‘and solemnly affirm.’ If USCIS finds that you are unable to use the words ‘so help me God’ because of your religious training or beliefs, you are not required to say these words.”
This was great, I could ask for nothing more—an affirmation without God.
The tricky bit here is that during the citizenship application process you have to state whether you agree with the oath in full. If you do not, you can prejudice your application. I agreed to the oath, but included a letter requesting the modifications mentioned above. I filed the application and waited.
A few months later I was called for a citizenship interview. Here, I met a nice lady who tested my grasp of the English language (the irony not being lost on me) and administered my civics test. She went through my paperwork and was about to rubberstamp everything when I mentioned that I had asked for the oath modifications. At this point she read my accompanying letter and then stepped out of the room to seek counsel. While she was out of the room I noticed a sheet of paper she had left on her desk asking me to return that very afternoon for the oath ceremony.
When she returned, she explained that because I had asked for a modified oath I would have to complete some further paperwork (an interrogatory) and then mail it in. After that I would have to wait a few months for my responses to be assessed. Disappointed, I left the building and went to my car. I was now experiencing deep regret that I had decided to make a principled stand and exercise my rights. The finish line to citizenship had been within tantalizing sight and I had blown it by putting more bureaucratic obstacles in my way.
I sat in my car and flicked through the document I had to answer. This document was a series of about 50 questions that asked whether I had objections to each specific phrase in the oath, followed by a request for explanations as to why my religious beliefs create these objections. It also asked for someone from my religious institution to confirm that I am a member and to detail how long I had been a member. In short, given that my objection stemmed from being an atheist, this document made no sense.
I took a few deep breaths and headed back into the building. I walked through to the busy waiting area and explained my problem to the lady behind the desk. She looked confusedly at me until a gentleman behind her interceded. He listened to me and then very loudly explained that I was mistaken and there is no mention of God in the citizenship oath.
Our dialogue became an interesting diversion for the masses of people waiting bored in rows upon rows of seats. He loudly started to read the oath, line by line. About halfway through I managed to get his attention by pointing to the last four words. He was somewhat taken aback. I don’t think he’d actually noticed those words before. His reaction then was that this doesn’t matter, I didn’t have to say “so help me God” if I didn’t want to, and he would take care of the situation.
I spent the next two hours going from floor to floor with this gentleman as he attempted to undo the bureaucratic paperwork that had been incorrectly generated for me. He had to change my status in computer systems, retracting records that showed that I had objected to the oath and add a number of comments explaining the situation. He even made me complete the interrogatory (all 50-plus questions, all answered N/A), the wonderful thing being the final page requiring my signature underneath the immortal phrase “so help me God,” which I diligently crossed out.
This gentleman did eventually smooth everything out for me. For a while I felt as though I was a renegade. My helper even questioned why I wanted to replace “on oath” with “and solemnly affirm,” asking me if I was trying to create trouble. He eventually reached the conclusion that I was fine, and we left on very good terms. He had even said that he was going to use this experience as training for how “not to do things” within the office.
Once things were straightened out, I was indeed able to return an hour later to participate in the swearing-in ceremony. And it was a wonderful event, as I and 160 other immigrants became U.S. citizens. I got to use words that were meaningful and made sense to me.
It takes quite some boldness to utilize your rights; as you complete the application form you are intently aware that the slightest errant answer may jeopardize gaining citizenship, coercing you to object to nothing and not to rock the boat. I certainly rocked the boat a little bit, and I’m glad I did. It was an empowering experience, I exercised my rights and I feel great that I became a citizen of this great country without a mention of God.
Foundation member Neil Kimber is an information technology professional, originally from the United Kingdom. He now lives in Georgia with his family.