The topic of the loyalty oath came up in a Teacherken diary. He spoke about our seventy year history of loyalty oaths as weapons against citizen activism. Our children and the young need to know about that history. However, I want to write about the loyalty oath as an ongoing event, both the function of the thing and the practice of it. After all, such a laughable, hated thing must have a use.
Loyalty oaths go back in time quite a ways. They are entangled, ultimately, with the very gnarled concept of honor as a function of personal psychic and spiritual integrity available only to those most refined. A peasant might not be capable of an oath in France, but the English yeoman was supposed to have character and free-born soul enough to have the integrity to never be forsworn. From the oaths used by the British Navy and the Dragoons to the office holders, as the centuries went by, the English state began relying upon more oaths at more levels.
When the United States came along, its founders already had a history of oaths -- already had a heritage of a cultural resistance to oath making and taking. Quakers were an important constituency of the mid-Atlantic states, and Puritans had been targeted by oaths while in England. The fracturing religious landscape of America in the 1780's was leaning much more Protestant than ecclesiastical, and the realities of expansion made the idea of enforced orthodoxy impractical.
. . . And yet American states, and the United States, reached for the oath as an instrument of self-protection.
Why would you want an oath?
We can probably leave the oath laying on top of the idea of honor. It is sufficient, but probably not accurate. If we go back to England, we discover why: the oath leaves room for casuistry. A man's, or a woman's, later, "honor" can be challenged by a charge of inconsistency, but it can also be a challenge for the political or social climber to prove 'honor' by out-witting the oath. Furthermore, the oath's designers inhabit a world view where a "man's word is his bond," where a person's individual identity and word must be aligned in civil as well as religious matters.
The oath-maker assumes that the oath-taker will take it as a matter of honor to read intent from the oath and ensure that his (and later, her) word can only be understood in a manner consistent with the self.
The most infamous oaths in English history surround the Test Act. The English crown is the head of the state church, and therefore a person not in the state church is potentially against the royal. In 1661, only people who took eucharist in the Church of England could hold any office (or attend the universities). This created a category known as occasional conformists, who were Puritans who would go to an Anglican church a couple of times a year to keep their jobs. In fact, only Roman Catholics were effectively barred at all by this measure (imagine Catholicism as "socialism" and Puritanism as "religious right," and the century is easier to understand). By 1673-4, a Puritan plot had been discovered, but the Test Act came along. This required an oath against transubstantiation and taking eucharist in the Anglican church within three months.
(Stick with me. Here's where it gets good.) So, every member of Parliament -- Commons and Lords -- and all ministers of the church, and every college applicant, has sworn thus. When Charles II died and James II came to the throne, it was all change. James II relaxed the persecutions (exclusions, really) against Catholics and "dissenters," but he was still deposed, more or less, and William of Orange came along with his wife, Mary Stuart. This "Glorious Revolution" introduced a new oath.
If you swore to James II, swearing to William meant being forsworn. Swearing to Charles II meant being unable to swear to William. So, either you become a non-juror, or you abandon the notion of the integrity of oaths and implicitly recognize such oaths, even about faith, as being no more meaningful than any other field.
The English Test Acts were based in protection. The idea had been that no man would lie about faith, and faith was identical with political allegiance. By 1700, a politically aware Englishman or woman would have realized that the oaths didn't work, that they, in fact, devalued themselves. Additionally, Parliament had effectively just elected a king.
Meet "The Vicar of Bray":
In good King Charles's golden days,
When Loyalty no harm meant;
A Zealous High-Church man I was,
And so I gain'd Preferment.
Unto my Flock I daily Preach'd,
Kings are by God appointed,
And Damn'd are those who dare resist,
Or touch the Lord's Anointed.
:And this is law, I will maintain
:Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
:That whatsoever King may reign,
:I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!
. . .
When William our Deliverer came,
To heal the Nation's Grievance,
I turn'd the Cat in Pan again,
And swore to him Allegiance:
Old Principles I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance,
Passive Obedience is a Joke,
A Jest is non-resistance.
:And this is Law, &c.
When Royal Anne became our Queen,
Then Church of England's Glory,
Another face of things was seen,
And I became a Tory
Occasional Conformists base
I Damn'd, and Moderation,
And thought the Church in danger was,
From such Prevarication.
:And this is Law, &c.
The founders of the United States? Well, the families who had supported the Rye Plot left or were transported. The Puritans who lost with Charles II came to America. The Catholics who lost with William came to America. In short, the mythic mass "fleeing religious persecution" were fleeing loyalty oaths and political revolutions, and they had reason to despise the instrument of their dispossession. (By the way, do the oaths work? Is it an actual question? The presence of the Rye Plot, the dual invasions against James II, the Irish rebellion against William. . . all of these rather testify to the presence of malcontents in office and under arms. (Yes, I recognize that many, if not most, were not.))
If oaths do not maintain national or local safety, then why would they be used? Abraham Lincoln's loyalty oath did lead to the resignation of a senator. We will come back to him, because I think he is a perfect example of what oaths do. It's fairly obvious that the United States loyalty oaths did not prevent much Soviet or Nazi subversion. Truman's "loyalty program" managed to net a lawyer or two. How many Communists stopped at the oath? How many KGB plants halted at that point?
Lincoln's oath caught a Democratic senator who was protesting. Truman's program no doubt caught numerous socialists who would not go along with the defiance and invasion of the question. Indeed, the oath inverted in its purpose, as it screened out the people whose word and character were united in "honor." No matter what we think of the Confederate sympathizers of the Civil War or today: those who refuse to sign tend to be the ones who read the oaths and take them as more than ink.
This is their purpose: to capture and reject dissenters, not enemies. In the failure of the original (if there are original) oaths, it became obvious that a certain class of individual would not be a Vicar of Bray. A certain group would argue, and this group is precisely the group that would cause the most trouble from within an organization. Who is going to be more dangerous to the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission, an averred Communist -- whose actions will be captured long before they do much -- or a liberal who argues publicly that American nuclear policy is dangerous? Who will cause more harm to national interests, the Nazi-believing jerk in the infantry, or the educated liberal who argues with his unit that their orders in "Pinkville" are insane?
Setting the normal
Why would anyone, then, permit the oath-making to continue? If the function of the test is to screen out dissent, then it becomes a seemingly infinitely flexible instrument.
Rachel Maddow's blog had an article on how much the GOP loves the oath. What Steve Benen noted was how the GOP apparatus officially embraced loyalty oaths at all levels. They extended their swearing to press conferences, campaign events, delegates, and all sorts of strange places. Furthermore, Republican candidates have to swear to all sorts of things. They have to swear:
*Never to raise a tax,
*Never to harm a fetus,
*To go to church,
*To root all utterances in the Constitution,
*To protect "God,"
*To oppose Islam.
Various groups with leverage on your local or state GOP ask for, and get, oaths from candidates. Meanwhile, some GOP candidates are notable for the oaths they do not take. Secessionists are showing up by refusing to say "indivisible" in the pledge that was designed to catch atheists.
However, these oaths, and their proliferation, show the function of the oath. They allow the oath's designer to proclaim the normal and the norm. (For this, you can see Political Authority and Obligation in Aristotle 2005, Andres Rosler, or the more pragmatic instances of how oaths created counter-norms and norms have destroyed oaths, see "Justice for All? the Supreme Court's Denial of Pro Se Petitions for Certiorari" in Albany Law Review 63:2 by Kevin H. Smith and Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework, David M. Estlund 2008. I confess that I have only read a smattering of this last one.)
Dividing the faithful with the voice of the almighty
If a vow, oath, or declaration establishes a norm, it does so with the vestments of the orthodox. Part of the attraction the GOP feels towards these things, no doubt, is the passive voice drenched certainty and authority in a vow. There are future aorists in there! The oath allows any group, and particularly an emergent reactionary group, to define the movement and actually create the movement according to its demands.
When I was twelve I made a pledge,
Against rules it was a hedge.
No taxes you may deduct,
And government can all be plucked.
Bedknobs and broomsticks
If you want high office,
You'll learn to play tricks.
How many politicians, of any party, would consider a blanket pronouncement against all futurity like, "No tax, of any form?" How many politicians, of any party, would dedicate themselves to "Serving in government so that I may end the government I serve?" The proposition would have been laughable even in 1981, in the midst of the "Reagan Revolution," and yet that very "revolution" was the excuse and the steam for this pledge.
The Libertarian streak of Reagan's coalition was in no way its power, and yet, over the next two decades, it would perhaps grow more insistent than the radical Protestant groups that had been most powerful. One reason for this was the use of "tax" as an amorphous category of vilification.
Declaring the apostate
A loyalty oath catches the intellectual and the dissenting person of "honor." We may take honor in this context to mean not the 19th century's romantic notions, but rather a sense of personal integrity -- either through a skepticism of social bonds (as is found in existentialism and nihilism) or belief in a super-social value in truth (usually present in the religious). We can assume that it does not save an organization from a dedicated enemy or a self-serving careerist.
The enemy is not the concern of the oath, and therefore the careerist must be.
If, when you go to work at a place, you must swear to uphold "Christian principles of conduct," you are at the mercy of the employer's definition of those principles. While you may answer with history or the Bible, such things will be of no avail. If you swear to "Uphold America's traditional values," then you will have no idea what those might be. They might be slavery, or they might be westward expansion or that Latin America is the U.S.'s sphere. If you agree to the oath, the oath's designer has the power to define apostacy and forswearing.
The careerist politician is circumscribed by the oath's organization. Republicans did not need their own reason to say that extending middle class tax cuts was not a tax increase: they needed Grover Norquist to say so. If stem cells are up for a vote, they will not need science to tell them they are or are not voting on abortion: they will need the American Family Association or Focus on the Fambly.
The true value of the oath is the future power it grants the designer of the oath over the careerist.
The Vicar of Bray constitutes a victory for the powers that be. So long as he keeps preaching from the pulpit what they propagate from Whitehall and shows no convictions of his own, they are happy. So long as we change our contents of character to match the words we sign, rather than asking for the words to match our character or honor, then power endlessly recedes from the individual into ever-more vague and devalued groups.