The latest debate about the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is particularly heated and unilluminating. On the one hand are the traditionalists who think the Pledge is just fine the way Congress changed it in 1954, putting in the reference to a Deity where the original lacked such. On the other are those who object to any encroachment of faith into public life. What is missing from the argument is the point that a loyalty oath, by simply existing, calls into question the patriotism and good will of the citizenry as a whole.
After the Civil War, the rebellious and defeated southern states were readmitted to the Union after 10% of their population swore allegiance to the U.S. government. The reasons were partially legal, partially political and partially religious in the broadest sense. By taking such an oath, certain actions became grounds for arrest and prosecution much more clearly than if the oath were accepted. Politically, the oath made it possible to demonstrate to the hard-core northern interests that the southern states had accepted the new national order. And religiously, most varieties of Christianity in the 19th century viewed oath-breaking as a significant sin.
This situation was extreme, however, and it seems that under circumstances such as Reconstruction, the requirement of a loyalty oath makes some sense. Such circumstances do not apply today. Despite the lax use of the word “traitor” in recent rants from the punditocracy, there are very few people in America who are actual traitors in the legal and moral senses of the word. It is possible for patriotic Americans to simply disagree over matters of national security, and such a disagreement ought not to call either side’s loyalty into question. Dissent is American and patriotic regardless of its political slant.
The other reason for an oath is in the execution of a specific civic function – for example taking on elective office or enlisting in the armed forces. At these times, the oath is not one of loyalty so much as it is an oath to devote oneself to a specific service for the public. Upholding and defending the constitution is something every American ought to do, but it is on inauguration day that that becomes a specific oath for a president. It sets out to what ends the next four years in that person’s life will be especially devoted.
And then, there is the Pledge of Allegiance — which recognizes no particular situation nor office. The very fact that this groundless pledge exists suggests that there are Americans whose loyalty is dubious. The actual formula of the words is less a problem than the fact that the formula exists. I vote, I pay my taxes, I respond to every jury duty summons, I registered with Selective Service at the age of 18, I have never been convicted of a misdemeanor, let alone a felony. Why do I need to make any sort of pledge when I have demonstrated my loyalty day in and day out by my actions? Worse, why is there a congressionally sanctioned formula when my loyalty shouldn’t be in doubt?