Smile Politely

Would You Sign a Loyalty Oath?

Is there anything less American than a loyalty oath? A country that prides itself on freedom of expression and association should be embarrassed to require people to swear allegiance to itself. Sure, old Soviets would do this kind of thing, but Americans?

Strange as it may seem, a California State-Fullerton professor was recently fired for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. In fact, all 2.3 million California state employees are required to sign an oath promising to “defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Signing the oath is part of the California Constitution, instituted during the McCarthy red scare era of the 1950s. Yet, it just seems so…unconstitutional.

The professor who didn’t sign the oath, Wendy Gonaver, is a Quaker and a pacifist, and was concerned that “defend” might imply some kind of violence, which she is morally opposed to. While this concern seems misplaced, the reality of the oath is that it is at best meaningless, and at worst, weeds out only those people with enough integrity to think it through and take it seriously.

It may seem like a no-brainer to defend the Constitution against enemies. After all, a promise to defend the Constitution is a lot better than the idolatry of pledging allegiance to a flag, which seems a lot like pledging allegiance to a Golden Calf of America. At least the Constitution contains the highest ideals of our nation, no matter how poorly it often gets implemented in practice.

However, in practice, a loyalty oath isn’t really a promise to defend the Constitution. If it were, we’d have 2.3 million Californians storming the White House until George Bush and Dick Cheney were behind bars. That, or we’d have 2.3 million Californians fired from their state jobs for failing to storm the White House to put George Bush and Dick Cheney behind bars.

No, in practice, the people who require a loyalty oath usually don’t care if you are loyal to the Constitution. Want they really want is for you to be loyal to them, or at least to their vision of what the Constitution or America means. What if being loyal to the Constitution meant:

       • supporting rendition and torture, because the current
          administration says the Constitution allows it
       • being pro-choice, because privacy rights for women’s
          right to choose is supported by the current Supreme Court
       • being pro-gun, because an individual right to own guns is
          the current interpretation of the 2nd Amendment
       • supporting “free-speech zones” where protesters are
          corralled to a small area miles away from a protest site
       • not paying income taxes, because some people think
          that the Constitution does not give the government the right to
          collect them

Is there anyone in this country who supports all these things? It seems that loyalty is a bit more complicated when it involves something more than a simple platitude to love America.

As for loyalty to the Constitution, I’m not a big fan of the Electoral College or the State of the Union Address, both of which are mandated by it. Would I have enough integrity to promise to defend them if a good enough job were on the line?

Of course, there’s an out for oaths about the Constitution, because the Constitution can be changed. A pledge to defend it could mean a pledge to defend the process of changing it in a legal and orderly way when it is broken (see Slaves, Women’s Rights, Civil Rights), and not necessarily agreeing with every stroke and tittle in the document. Loyalty oaths to the flag or the country are more problematic, because what that means depends on who is in power and what they consider loyalty.

When it comes down to it, a country is a rather arbitrary thing to be pledging loyalty to. Why not pledge loyalty to our city, our state, our continent, to humanity as a whole, or to the planet as a whole? Yes, our country is the strongest political entity in our lives, but doesn’t that just make it more susceptible to corruption? Many of us pledge allegiance to our conception of God, but historically that usually creates more confusion, not less, since people’s conceptions of God vary so drastically, and they are less willing to compromise when they believe God is on their side.

It seems that what citizens should be pledging allegiance to are higher ideals, like human rights, political freedom, and economic justice. When our country is on the right side of those ideals, we owe it our temporary allegiance. When it is on the wrong side, we owe it our temporary dissent. We should care less whether someone has signed an oath promising to do these things, as long as they do them when it counts.

Would you be willing to sign an oath to defend the Constitution? To defend the flag? To generically love America? Would it depend on how lucrative the job was that required it?

I have to admit that I would probably have signed a meaningless oath to get a job in my younger days, when I was much more stressed out about money and the security it provides.

Integrity is like a lot of things – easier to have when you can afford it.

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