09/01/2008 11:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rest Assured New Orleans, I'm Sure Lt. Gen. Van Antwerp is Praying for You

For those who don't know who Lt. Gen. Robert L. Van Antwerp is, he's the Commanding General of the Army Corps of Engineers -- the guy who's been in charge of repairing the levees in New Orleans for the past sixteen months. He's also one of our military's most prolific fundamentalist Christian holy rollers.

As the heavy rains continue to fall in the wake of Gustav, and other storms are forming in the Atlantic, let's all hope that Lt. Gen. Van Antwerp has been praying the official U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Prayer -- a prayer from the engineers asking "almighty God, engineer of all eternity" to "Open our inner lives to know You better and receive Your gift of deliverance through salvation. Grant us wisdom in our efforts to improve, maintain, protect, and restore Your creation."

I've written here about Lt. Gen. Van Antwerp before, when the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) re-aired a Fourth of July Christian Concert special featuring, in violation of the Constitution, the U.S. Code, and military regulations, an interview with Van Antwerp, footage of basic trainees filmed at Fort Leonard with the general's knowledge and permission, and the dipping of two American flags to Christian pop star Carman by a military color guard. In the TBN special, Van Antwerp, in uniform, was introduced as a past president of the Officers' Christian Fellowship (OCF), an organization of over 14,000 officers and chapters on virtually every U.S. military installation worldwide, whose goal, paraphrased by Lt. Gen. Van Antwerp in the interview, is to "create a spiritually transformed U.S. military, with Ambassadors for Christ in uniform, empowered by the Holy Spirit." The re-airing of this special prompted a demand by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) for an investigation by the Department of Defense.

As I wrote in my previous post, Van Antwerp's appearance in the TBN special was far from an isolated incident for this three-star general, whose frequent appearances at religious events include everything from prayer breakfasts and OCF ROTC retreats to the 2003 "Mission San Diego" Billy Graham Crusade, at which he gave his Christian testimony, in uniform, to a crowd of tens of thousands, as well as military personnel all over the world via a broadcast of the crusade on the Armed Forces Network.

Recently, MRFF discovered that Lt. Gen. Van Antwerp has endorsed a religious book far worse than the "Spiritual Handbook" endorsed by Gen. Petraeus, an endorsement that, along with the lying that followed, earned Petraeus the distinction of runner-up "Worst Person in the World" for August 21 on Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

But, the book endorsed by Petraeus, Army chaplain William McCoy's Under Orders: A Spiritual Handbook for Military Personnel, a book that not only promotes Christianity but insinuates that a soldier's lack of spirituality or religion can cause the failure of their team or unit, pales in comparison to So Help Me God: A Reflection on the Military Oath, the book endorsed by Lt. Gen. Van Antwerp. According to So Help Me God, if someone doesn't swear an oath to God, "they would no longer be bound by God to fulfill the constitutional requirements of the office or the law" making it "all to easy for them to decide that it was acceptable to circumvent the law," leading to "social anarchy and degeneration." Without an appeal to God "people can subscribe to oaths and vows with no intention of abiding by their terms."

In an endorsement that appears on the book's back cover, Lt. Gen. Van Antwerp calls So Help Me God: "A serious call to 'stay the course' during troublesome times and seek the ever-present Helper above." By endorsing this book, Van Antwerp has not only betrayed every non-theist in the military, as Gen. Petraeus did in endorsing the "Spiritual Handbook," but has gone a step further, insulting every member of those religions whose tenets prohibit the swearing of oaths to God.

Here are some excerpts from So Help Me God, starting with the entire statement about not being "bound by God to fulfill the constitutional requirements of the office or the law" mentioned above:

"They would solemnly swear or affirm by themselves, seemingly escaping accountability to the highest Authority. As a result, if a law would seem disagreeable to them, or if they regard their own ideas as superior, it would be all to easy for them to decide that it was acceptable to circumvent the law. In essence, they would become their own judge and jury; a final authority unto themselves.

"Consequently, where there is no regard for truth or when people can subscribe to oaths and vows with no intention of abiding by their terms, then social anarchy and degeneration ensue. Where there is no fear of God, then the sanctity of oaths and vows disappears, and people begin to shift the foundations of society from the truth to a lie."

And, it's pretty clear that by "God" the author clearly means the Christian god:

"On one of the most important days of your life, you asked God for help when you took your military oath. If you have not entrusted your life to Him, you are neglecting the ultimate Source of help available. Friend, ask God to forgive you of your sins and give you eternal life. Ask him right now to save you, based on the ultimate sacrifice that Christ paid for you, and you can be certain that you will spend eternity with God when you die."


"It is quite possible that you may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice in service to America. This is a very sobering thought. While you may fear the 'hell of war,' a far greater danger is not knowing where you will spend eternity if you die. During periods of deployment, especially when conflict is imminent, the reality of death can weigh heavily on your mind, which leads to the following questions: Are there really no atheists in foxholes? How can you be sure that you will spend eternity with God when you die?

"The psalmist said, 'God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1). When our world was in great trouble and in need of refuge, God sent us the best help we could ever have when He gave us His Son, Jesus Christ, to make the ultimate sacrifice, dying for your sins and mine on the cross.'"

And, if there is any doubt that these people think they're fighting not the enemies of the United States but the enemies of Jesus Christ, one of the prayers in the book, prayed, of course, "in Jesus' name," contains the following line:

"Let my weapons rain destruction on your enemies, but protect the innocent from their devastation."

The book's acknowledgements include its editor, Tom Gilson of the Military Ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, an organization operating at all of our military's largest basic training installations and the service academies, with the goal of transforming our enlisted trainees and future officers into "government-paid missionaries for Christ."

Then, there's the "alleged" separation of church and state:

"On June 26, 2002, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance cannot be recited in public schools because the phrase 'under God' endorses religion. The court ruled that reciting this phrase is a violation of the alleged Constitutional separation of church and state."

Much of So Help Me God: A Reflection on the Military Oath isn't actually about the military oath, but about "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and other issues, including a completely unfounded and ridiculous claim that there is presently an effort afoot to forbid religious oaths in courtrooms.

And, of course, So Help Me God also contains a healthy dose of historical revisionism. The basic problem with writing a book about the importance and necessity of every military man and woman uttering the words "So help me God" in their oath is that these words haven't always been in the oath. Needless to say, this pesky historical fact would undermine the entire premise of the book, so it has to be changed.

According to the book:

"During the Revolutionary War, the 'So Help Me God' phrase became part of official military oaths. Since then millions of American servicemen and women have proudly raised their right hand, repeated their military oath, and concluded by calling upon God to help them fulfill an awesome commitment to bear 'true faith and allegiance' to the Constitution and to the United States. There are different versions of the military oath depending on duty status (active, reserve or National Gurad), and rank (enlisted or officer). However, all oaths for military personnel conclude with the phrase, 'So Help Me God.'"

In reality, there has not been a continuous use of the all-important "So Help Me God" in military oaths since the Revolutionary War. The first military oaths under the Constitution, written in 1789 by the same Congress that wrote the Bill of Rights, did not contain these words. In fact, "So Help Me God" wasn't added to the enlisted oath until 1962, (the same year that everyone was freaking out of over the court decisions stopping mandatory prayers in public schools).

In 1789, officers took the same one sentence oath as other government officials:

"I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States."

And, this was the first enlisted oath:

"I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) to bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the president of the United States of America, and the orders of officers appointed over me."

In 1790, a single oath for both officers and enlisted was written -- again without "So Help Me God." This phrase didn't become part of the officer's oath until 1862, when officers were required to take the same oath written for government officials, swearing that they had never supported the Confederacy. That oath, written at another time in our country's history when religion was being pushed into the government, did end with "So Help Me God." When the Civil War was over, the part of the officer's oath regarding the Confederacy was deleted, but the "So Help Me God" remained.

There was no change during this time to enlisted oath, which remained "godless" until 1962. Amazingly, the millions of enlisted personnel who won the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, and World War II, etc. somehow managed to uphold the terms of an oath that didn't end with "So Help Me God."

But, the historical revisionism in So Help Me God doesn't end with the military oath. There are also the popular myths about George Washington's inauguration.

According to the book:

"America's first President and Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, took his oath of office with his hand upon a Bible opened to the book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 28."


"On April 30, 1789, America's first Commander-in-Chief, President George Washington, concluded his presidential oath of office ... by adding four words to form a most fitting and prayerful plea: SO HELP ME GOD. With the addition of 'So Help Me God,' Washington set a historical precedent that other U.S. presidents have since followed."

As far as the claim that the Bible was opened to Deuteronomy, Chapter 28 goes, there is a widespread myth among Christian nationalist history revisionists that Washington carefully chose this particular chapter. He didn't. The Bible was randomly opened, and it fell open to Genesis -- the end of Chapter 49 and the beginning of Chapter 50. This is well documented, both by the Masonic Lodge that the Bible was borrowed from, and in the accounts of religious people of the time who were trying to find some divine meaning in the pages of Genesis that the Bible happened to fall open to. Interestingly, the reason that a Bible had to be borrowed was that in a Congress that was, according to the Christian nationalists, writing laws based on the Bible, there wasn't a single Bible to be found in the building. The parade marshal, who was a mason, knew there was a Bible down the street at his lodge, and someone quickly ran to get it.

But, more importantly, there is no evidence that George Washington added "So Help Me God" to his oath of office. In fact, all of the historical evidence points to the opposite. Not a single newspaper article from the time or any other contemporary account of Washington's inauguration has him adding these words. The myth was started by Washington Irving while writing his biography of George Washington in the 1850s, and first appeared in Rufus Wilmot Griswold's 1854 book The Republican Court, or, American Society in the Days of Washington. According to Griswold:

"The Bible was raised, and as the President bowed to kiss its sacred pages, he said audibly, 'I swear,' and added, with fervor, his eyes closed, that his whole soul might be absorbed in the supplication, 'So help me God!'"

Although Griswold's book came out before Washington Irving's, Griswold states that Irving was his source, writing:

"Few persons are now living who witnessed the induction of the first President of the United States into his office; but walking, not many months ago...Washington Irving related to Dr. Francis and myself his recollections of these scenes, with that graceful conversational eloquence of which he is one of the greatest of living masters."

According to Griswold, Washington Irving was an eyewitness to the inauguration, but even if he was, which according to other sources is doubtful, he would have been all of six years old and, according to the story as told by Griswold, standing about three hundred feet away in the crowd. He probably wouldn't have been able to see, let alone been able to tell if Washington's eyes were open or closed, and he certainly wouldn't have been able to hear a word that Washington said.

Far more reliable contemporary accounts, such as that of the Comte de Moustier, one of the foreign dignitaries with a "front row seat," quote exactly what was said:

"A bible was brought out on a crimson pillow on which the President placed his hand and pronounced after the Chancellor the following words: 'I solemnly swear to faithfully uphold the duties of the President of the United States and to do all that is in my power to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States.' Whereupon the Chancellor, making a sign to the crowd with his hat, cried 'Long live George Washington, President of the United States.'"

The Comte de Moustier's account is supported by every newspaper article describing the inauguration. There was a Bible, and Washington did kiss the Bible (a masonic tradition, kissing the Bible three times), but he took the oath exactly as prescribed in the Constitution, not adding a word.

Lt. Gen. Van Antwerp's endorsement of So Help Me God: A Reflection on the Military Oath, a book that not only promotes a particular religion and denigrates those of other religions, but lies about the very words in this oath that are claimed to be so crucial that not saying them will "shift the foundations of society from the truth to a lie," is a disgrace.

I'd also imagine that quite a few Christians would be appalled by a prayer to Jesus that says, "Let my weapons rain destruction on your enemies..."