Oaths, Pledges, and Vows, Oh My! Religious Privilege Running Our Lives

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Many of you have probably by now have heard about young Will Phillips, the 10-year-old Arkansan who refuses to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, because he thinks that until the LGBT community has equality, there truly isn’t “liberty and justice for all.” Today, Hemant wrote about another student, Daniel Royston, in Alaska who tried to follow Will’s example, but whose principal abused his power and very much disrespected the student’s rights.

This got me thinking again about pledges, as well as oaths and vows. I first posed the question of oaths way back in my first month of blogging. I’m not even sure I totally agree with what I wrote there anymore. At the time I was asking if I could swear an oath, seeing as how the word “sacred” means nothing to me, so there is nothing upon which or no one to whom I could properly swear. But maybe the question should be why do we have oaths, pledges, and vows? What are they and how do we think about them?

We’re talking about promises here. Not being an etymologist, myself, the best I can tell is that a pledge is a promise, an oath is a sacred promise, and a vow is a special kind of oath. My first thought is: do I trust people more when they have taken an oath? And the answer is no. The only distinction would be that having “taken the oath,” they are then legally vulnerable to perjury. It’s probably convenient that we make it illegal to lie in a legal proceeding, but that doesn’t mean it always holds.

So what’s the point? It seems like it’s a faith thing (maybe it’s just coincidence that oaths of office include the word “faithfully”?). I think there is a perception and an understanding that an oath is somehow more than just legally binding words. It’s ceremonial; it’s significant. Oh, he swore. He swore on the Bible and he swore to God. Does that really make it any different than a promise? I don’t think so. Plenty of elected officials have desecrated (another meaningless religious word in our vernacular!) failed to defend the Constitution, but there isn’t any accountability just because they took an oath. No one shakes a finger and says, “But you swore!” So other than enforcing perjury, do oaths have any meaning?

I think wedding vows are a perfect example of how artificial the meaning of oaths can be. Honestly, when the divorce rate is around 50%, “till death do us part,” doesn’t seem to hold a lot of weight. But again we see that such an oath is merely ceremonial. It has meaning to say those words to your loved one in that moment before those witnesses, even if you end up betraying those vows. It doesn’t change the fact that those promises get their own special word.

And now let’s talk pledges. I’m going to open fire by saying I think it’s unAmerican to expect anyone to say a pledge of allegiance. It seems almost contrary to why we founded our country. We pledged allegiance to Britain and then we had a revolution. Expecting allegiance, I think, is a sign of insecurity. We want all our citizens to like us! Do most young people even know what allegiance is? Do they know enough about their country and how they feel about living it to stand up and honorable commit such loyalty on a daily basis? Most probably don’t. Heck, my country’s betrayed me enough times that I still don’t. It’s indoctrination.

Now, I’m not even talking about “under God.” I’m just talking about making little kids recite something they don’t even understand. It’s not all that different from teaching them to pray. Get it stuck in their minds and make them habitually show their support! Doesn’t that sound more like something a dictatorship would have? There’s a difference between Kim Jong-il and the American flag, sure, but the original intent was national solidarity. And lest we not forget the pledge was originally written by a Baptist minister! The worst part of all this is that the Supreme Court ruled in 1943—yes, over 60 years ago!—that “compulsory unification of opinion” violated the First Amendment! But clearly, in the case of Daniel, this expectation of participation persists. And in fact, there are still laws on the books in states across our country. It was only in 2006 that Florida’s law was overturned!

Again, we must come back to the question of what is the point of all this? Truthfully, I think it’s all about people’s insecurities and distrust. How wicked a people we must be that we don’t truly appreciate a person’s commitment if it is not spoken under a sacred oath! How paranoid we might be of traitors that we require pledges of allegiance that are essentially meaningless! And all of these ideas persist because religious thinking persists.

It’s thinking about issues like this that make me proud to be an atheist. I don’t need a God or a Bible to trust someone. I put my fellow humans first. It’d be great to see a day when we can all do that, but I’m not optimistic it will be soon.

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There are 1 Comments to "Oaths, Pledges, and Vows, Oh My! Religious Privilege Running Our Lives"

  • AlexMagd says:

    It’s a very odd thing, certainly. In the UK we don’t have a pledge of allegience (at least, that I’ve ever recited) and the idea of patriotism is greeted with a kind of suspicious caution – on the basis that’s it’s a small hop and a jump from that to unBritishness and dodgy nationalism. Same with saluting the flag: that’s weird too.
    Most people in the UK avoid – and absolutely don’t feel the need to introduce – these kind of oaths and vows to the state which is quite paradoxical, since there’s definitely more attachment to the state, Parliament and government than you get in the USA. The queen is a trickier one – I think you’d be just as likely to see people refusing to salute/recite anything with her name in it as you would people accepting.

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