Swearing loyalty: Should new citizens pledge allegiance in a naturalisation oath?

Patti Tamara Lenard (University of Ottawa)

Across many countries, new citizens pledge allegiance to their new states of citizenship, as part of a citizenship ceremony that concludes a long and often arduous naturalization process.  The ceremony, and the oath, are part of a celebration that marks the formal welcoming of new citizens into the community, as full and equal members. In what follows, I will defend the choice to require pledges of allegiance, where allegiance requires a commitment to obey the law and often where it requires a shift in beliefs and sentiments as well.


The so-called traditional immigrant receiving countries, including Canada, the United States and Australia, have long asked would-be citizens to take an oath of citizenship, as a final step in the naturalization process. The United States has required would-be citizens to take an oath since 1790; Canada since 1947; Australia since 1949 (but not for British nationals). More recently, other countries have followed suit.  For example, the United Kingdom began requiring new citizens to swear an oath of allegiance in 2004; optional citizenship ceremonies, including an oath of allegiance, were made available to incoming citizens in Norway in 2007; and more recently, Peru and South Korea adopted ceremonies, with oaths, in 2016 and 2018 respectively.

The context for the adoption of citizenship ceremonies is the worry that immigrants, especially those who come from countries with distinctive religious and cultural practices, may not be integrating effectively, and that more work has to be done to ensure that they do (see also Kymlicka 2010; Vertovec and Wessendorf 2010).  Many states have adopted the view that more robust efforts at nation-building should accompany this rise in immigration. As a result, the last twenty years have seen many states adopt a range of policies ostensibly encouraging integration. Their goal is to ensure that by the time immigrants naturalise, they are not only successful in mastering a national language, in education and employment but are also loyal members of the nation they have joined. These policies include citizenship and language classes and tests, and in some countries a citizenship ceremony that includes an oath of allegiance.

These nation-building policies are not obviously objectionable in and of themselves, though many scholars (including me) do believe that naturalization should be made easier rather than more challenging. One main worry is that the adoption of more robust naturalization policies is fundamentally rooted in Islamophobia, where the implicit objective is to make it harder for Muslim migrants to gain access to the full set of rights and privileges of citizenship – or at least to ensure that objectionable values are weeded out of would-be citizens before they act on them.

Moreover, the worry that immigrants are not loyal to their host state, and therefore that it is worthwhile to be suspicious of them, is not new. In particular, the demand that newcomers pledge allegiance is rooted in the worry that certain newcomers remain loyal to their countries of origin, even as they take advantage of the benefits of living in stable and democratic host societies, in part by sustaining rather than giving up the norms and values that define their country of origin. 

Pledges of allegiance: A Defence

Before examining whether this demand can be justified, it is important to consider what allegiance is. In contemporary discussions of allegiance, a distinction is drawn between a thinner and thicker understanding of the concept.  On some thinner interpretations, allegiance is understood minimally to mean a commitment to obey the law.  On thicker interpretations, allegiance is believed to require possession of certain beliefs or sentiments, or “loyalty to the law”.  Oaths of allegiance are defensible, in my view, if they are entirely thin and, subject to the conditions I outline below, even if they demand the public expressions of allegiance or loyalty.

I will defend three reasons that oath-taking, in which newcomers pledge their allegiance to their new country of citizenship, is defensible policy: 1) taking the oath signals the voluntary consent of new citizens to the authority of their new state of citizenship; 2) taking the oath solemnizes the moment in which new citizens commit themselves to the state that, in turn, protects their rights and privileges; and 3) taking the oath is, at least so far as empirical evidence suggests, a meaningful moment for newcomers, who are happy and excited to join a new state formally and who recognize the moment as one in which they are accepted as belonging to a new state. None of these reasons is without criticism, but together they provide a strong case in defense of states’ choice to adopt pledges of allegiance for new citizens.

First, at least so long as naturalisation is itself voluntary on the part of the immigrant, pledging allegiance as part of a citizenship ceremony is “closely connected with the voluntaristic aspects of the liberal tradition. Declarations of attachment can be seen as part of an effort to link political obligation with the active consent of the governed”. Naturalisation itself is a choice that immigrants can make, if they meet the requirements the state asks of them. Even if the specific steps required to naturalise are themselves not matters of choice, the choice to naturalise highlights that incoming citizens are consenting to the authority of the state they are joining (I assume, it is worth emphasising, that naturalisation is voluntary; were naturalisation mandatory rather than a matter of choice, the matter might well be different).  Many choices have this structure – as I say to my Applied Ethics students, my course may be mandatory and therefore you must take it, but only because you have made the prior choice to pursue a graduate degree in Policy Studies.

A critic might respond that it is disingenuous to claim that the steps of naturalisation should be treated as voluntary, including especially a mandatory oath, just because a choice to naturalise has been made.  On this view, the choice to naturalise does not translate into a choice to say anything in an oath. If the content of an oath is sufficiently objectionable, then it is misleading at best to treat oath-taking as voluntary, and at worst, the requirement to utter it is a violation of freedom of conscience when it is the only way to acquire citizenship status. I think this objection has some validity, but only where the content of the oath is truly objectionable. Below I will say more about the content requirements for mandatory oaths, but for now let me at least point out that in cases where the oath contains only statements about the willingness to conform to the law, it is reasonable to treat oath-taking as being done voluntarily and thus as expressing consent. This response is especially strong in democratic states where most rights and obligations are protected for and possessed by both citizens and non-citizens of a territory.

Although some scholars and activists wish it were otherwise, citizenship status remains extremely valuable – one’s country of citizenship is legally and morally obligated to protect the rights and privileges of its citizens on an equal basis. A second reason to defend naturalisation oaths, then, is that in taking them, new citizens publicly accept the responsibilities of citizenship in exchange for the protection offered by citizen status. In general, oaths are an especially weighty promise, and the taking of the citizenship oath specifically highlights the importance of this exchange – of responsibility-taking for protection – for both the host state and the new citizen. In addition to formalising the connection between incoming citizens and their new state, the oath also has an important expressive dimension: it signals to current citizens that incoming citizens have done the work they need to warrant citizenship status, and that they ought therefore to be welcomed since they can be trusted to take their role as citizens in their new state seriously.  While the oath appears one-sided – newcomers take on the responsibilities of citizenship, whereas the state is not itself required to pledge allegiance – naturalisation, as represented by the completion of the oath, immediately gives rise to the obligation by a state to protect the oath taker’s citizenship rights. While citizenship status can be revoked in many states once it is granted, doing so is often a cumbersome and difficult process, even where new citizens are accused of fraud or disloyalty. In other words, the cementing of citizenship status, via an oath, is often paradoxically more binding on the state than the incoming citizen.

Some scholars argue that requiring the consent of incoming citizens distinguishes them problematically from “natural-born” citizens who are also subject to the authority of the state but who have not consented to this authority; Liav Orgad for example suggests that this generates an unacceptable inequality between types of citizens. I think this objection is mistaken for two reasons.  For one, if consent to state authority is important, then this objection is in fact an argument in favour of finding ways to secure the consent of natural born citizens rather than objecting to the ways in which consent is offered by incoming citizens.  As well, while natural-born citizens may not consent to the authority that is exercised over them by taking an oath, if the state is democratic and offers extensive ways in which citizens can participate in politics, extract justifications for the policies to which they are subject, and issue criticisms of them, then they too can be understood as offering something like consent to the authority of the state, albeit via an alternative mechanism. This reason borrows from the literature that justifies state authority: This authority is not a morally problematic violation of individual freedom, if individuals can freely access justifications for the use of that authority and if they can participate freely in the democratic procedures that shape its actions. In other words, the mechanisms by which incoming and natural-born citizens offer their consent need not be the same.

A third reason to defend oath-taking is that doing so is often important to immigrants themselves. For many individuals, the journey of taking on citizenship has been long and difficult, and they are at least relieved and sometimes even ecstatic about the event. So the oath, and the ceremony surrounding it, are a meaningful recognition of a valuable transition for many immigrants. Ethnographic research bears out the claim that the ceremony, and the oath-taking, are meaningful to many new citizens, suggesting that incoming citizens appreciate the opportunity to make a firm commitment to their new state. To quote just one example, “what is nice about it is that it gives you that moment of ceremony, where you actually are affirming your citizenship. (…) One of the greatest privileges about it is being able to vote. And to me that means being a stakeholder in the community and a citizen – having a responsibility for this place” (see also Hagelund and Reegård 2011). Research suggests that, in cases where oaths and ceremonies are voluntary, the reasons that incoming citizens choose not to attend are mainly instrumental –  for instance, that they cannot easily take time off work– rather than principled: “It was interesting to note that hardly anybody expressed more principled or ideologically motivated reasons for not participating”.

Correspondingly, as one scholar explains, pledges of allegiance have the “stated purpose of creating a sense of belonging and loyal citizens”. The ceremony aims at generating and deepening the feelings of belonging experienced by new members, by marking the occasion of their joining the community. This reason is connected to the motivation that states have cited for adopting naturalisation oaths – namely, that they are seeking ways to secure the loyalty of incoming citizens, and to ensure that they endorse the values and norms of their new country of citizenship. Describing the voluntary citizenship ceremony and oath that is made available to incoming citizens in Norway, two scholars observe its purpose as “primarily to formally celebrate the transition to Norwegian citizenship in a dignified manner. The idea is to create a sense of belonging – and through this a basis for social cohesion”. In describing the motivation for the British government to adopt naturalisation ceremonies, another scholar writes that, “in the ongoing debate around immigration and national-state belonging, the citizenship ceremonies were constructed as a moment of marking and celebrating the end of a journey of migration”.

There are both dark and benign readings of these moves to create national belonging and generate pride and loyalty among naturalized citizens. A critic could emphasise the motivations originating in the Islamophobia I highlighted at the beginning and the more general suspicions that some states have demonstrated with respect to incoming migrants, prompting states to take a more active role in shaping newcomers. But there is a benign and even optimistic reading of these moves, which recognizes the importance of citizenship status and the felt need for incoming citizens to belong to the community they have joined and to be recognized as members.

Two constraints

The positive case for requiring new citizens to takes oaths of allegiance leans on the voluntary acceptance of the authority of the new state, the importance of the status of citizenship itself, including the protections it provides and the obligations it generates, and its connection to generating a sense of belonging among incoming citizens, as full and equal members of a state. I will highlight two constraints on the acceptability of such oaths.

The first constraint concerns the conditions of naturalising citizens as they say the oath, rather than the oath itself. For example, Zunera Ishaq took the Canadian government to court over its claim that she had to display her face while taking the oath. As a devout Muslim, who interpreted her faith obligations as requiring her to keep her face covered at all times, she argued that the requirement to show her face to a roomful of people (rather than merely a female officer, in advance of the oath, to ensure her identity) was a violation of her religious freedom. The Canadian Federal Court ultimately agreed with her, and so do I (the Canadian government initially announced, and then retracted, an intention to appeal the decision). It seems clear enough that offering accommodations to individuals with religious and cultural commitments, so that they can take the oath, is required of liberal democratic states, if they intend the ceremony and oath-taking to be experienced as a form of inclusion and to inculcate a sense of belonging among citizens with diverse backgrounds. The same can be said for accommodations that allow incoming citizens to bypass handshaking where their religion asks them to refrain from touching others of the opposite sex. These accommodations have nothing to do with the taking of the oath and do not interrupt the exchange that the oath implies for incoming citizens.

A second constraint relates to the content of the oath. Among those who object to oath-taking some believe the content can, if incoming citizens are forced to say it, violate their freedom of conscience. The content of existing oaths varies widely from the relatively formal commitments to law-abidingness that characterizes the voluntary Scandinavian oaths to the more fiery commitments that incoming American citizens have to pledge, for example to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity” to other states, and to “bear arms on behalf of the United States”. While the Scandinavian variation simply and permissibly asks incoming citizens to abide by the law – something which they are presumably doing already, even without citizenship status, the American version asks incoming citizens to adopt unequivocal loyalty to their new state and this is normatively problematic. The recognition that incoming citizens will sometimes have multiple loyalties, and that this does not compromise the integrity of the new state, is increasingly widespread.

Additionally, naturalising citizens ought not to be asked to swear an oath that entrenches ethnic or religious constructions of national identity.  So, on the one hand, when Israel briefly flirted with requiring non-Jewish (and then all) naturalising citizens to proclaim their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state, that move was properly condemned as discriminatory in a democratic state.  On the other hand, some states have adapted oaths to remove religious references or to give incoming citizens an option to remove religious references, in respect of the religious diversity among incoming citizens. This shift is appropriate. States also adapt and adopt changes to the oaths to reflect internal shifts in domestic priorities – as for example when Canada adapted its oath to recognize formally that the willingness to abide by Canadian law includes the requirement to respect Indigenous rights, including treaties made between the government of Canada and Indigenous peoples. In this latter case, while newcomers may not arrive with a commitment to protecting and preserving Indigenous peoples’ rights, it is expected that they will adopt this priority as they “Canadianize.”

The precise boundary between permissible and impermissible content is fuzzy, and I will not engage in further examination here. I will simply conclude by telling this story of repeated contestations of the Canadian oath of citizenship. Several times, the Canadian oath’s content has been challenged as a violation of freedom of conscience, for requiring incoming citizens to swear their allegiance to the British Monarchy, Canada’s official head of state. The text reads that an applicant for citizenship must be “faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Charles the Third, King of Canada, His Heirs and Successors.” Some of those who challenged the content were anti-monarchist as a matter of principle; others had specific grievances against the British Monarchy for its contribution to colonialism and connected injustices. Yet, these challenges have not succeeded for many reasons. To give just one example, a Federal Court Judgement read that “it is neither un-constitutional, nor illegal, nor inappropriate to advocate the amendment of the Constitution”, but the requirement to speak the oath as it is written to attain citizenship would remain in place (for a more thorough evaluation of this case, see Lenard 2023 chapter 8). In other words, once incoming citizens have said the oath, they are Canadian, and like all Canadians will have full access to the political system in which the content of the oath is debated.

The process by which newcomers are welcomed into a community, and by which they come to feel like they belong, is long and it is not complete at the time of naturalisation. As part of this process, an incoming citizen’s formal pledge to respect their new state’s laws, and in some cases to take on its norms and values, does however mark a meaningful milestone in that process of integration.