“I, (the undersigned) do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution and laws of the State; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, and defend them against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties according to the best of my ability, so help me God (or ‘so I do affirm’).”
That’s the text of the loyalty oath that I, along with every other governmental employee, am required to sign to work for the federal government this summer. It’s a great job doing preservation work with the National Park Service, and I don’t plan on passing it up, but this oath gives me pause.
It’s nice that I can choose to rephrase the God part. Though not particularly religious, I probably won’t bother and will just sign it with the God part anyway. No need for anyone to know I’m a heathen. However, I am going to a least pause and consider the implications of what I’m signing.
I’m a little troubled by McCarthyite fears – loyalty tests bring up disturbing images of black lists and evoke memories of un-American activities commissions and Red Scares. It’s a little troubling to have to affirm my loyalty to anyone.
And perhaps I should be troubled. After all, I am an ardent critic of this administration and am skeptical of the value of nationalism and undying loyalty to a nation. Examining it line by line gives me pause. Now, I really do think the Constitution is a good thing, but at first glance I’ll have a little trouble signing this. Let’s examine it, line by line. Support for the Constitution? Sure, I can swear to support its ideals, but supporting the ideals of the Constitution requires not blindly following it, but actively engaging it and questioning it. So my support will only go far enough to mean that I will behave as a citizen in a free country.
Now here is where it gets a little tricky, I have to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” Does that mean I have to have faith that the Constitution is perfect and that anyone who doubts it is not “in allegiance” with it?
“Defend it against all enemies, foreign and domestic?” Who gets to decide who its enemies are? If I can decide, then OK. But if the Bush administration gets to tell me who the enemies of the Constitution are, then I will not necessarily defend it. In our day and age, when Democratic presidential candidates are described as just short of enemies of the state simply for voicing the need for a different outcome in the next election, I don’t really feel comfortable defending the Constitution against every “enemy.”
Of course, this oath could be seen as mere formality. Every year millions of governmental employees are required to sign this oath. It probably won’t be a burden on me and following this oath is easily in line with my activities – it’s not like I’m busy overthrowing the government or circumventing the Constitution or anything. Furthermore, I really doubt the government will call on me to go out with my shovel and nail gun to deal with some enemies of the Constitution.
But on further inspection, I think I can sign this with a clear conscience. I fact, I will argue that my actions and worries are exactly at the heart of what this oath is all about. The best way to defend the Constitution is to hold leadership accountable, raise questions, be involved in democracy, and voice dissent if necessary.
The more I think about it, the more the wording and this oath appeals to me. It talks about the Constitution and ideals, not current policy. It leaves open the opportunity for me to decide for myself what constitutes a threat to the ideals of the United States. While that no doubt includes the vague threat of international terrorism, it can also include repressive police tactics at public demonstrations, elimination of basic civil liberties, and the erosion of social programs without which the American dream of freedom is impossible for millions.
If the government’s goal with this loyalty test is to assure that people are informed about the value of the Constitution and are willing to freely engage in participatory democracy, then this loyalty test is right up my alley. But if by signing my name the Bush administration sees me in allegiance with it, they are sadly mistaken. I’ll take this oath seriously, and it won’t silence me.
Piskor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.