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

Bringing naturalisation back in: Why oaths should mark the transition to a new citizenship

Geoffrey Brahm Levey (UNSW, Sydney)

Of the eleven preceding contributions to this forum, none defends requiring new citizens to swear loyalty or pledge allegiance as traditionally understood and practiced. That is unsurprising. I join everyone else on that. It is interesting, however, that only two contributors defend more limited mandatory pledges from naturalising immigrants.

Patti Lenard finds in this common state practice some genuine benefits: it solicits the consent of would-be citizens to the ruling authority of their new state, solemnises the moment of their committing to a new society, and bestows ceremony and joy on this milestone in their lives, which, in general, they appreciate. Even so, she argues that such oaths are defensible only where the state is not proscriptive about tangential matters such as what oath-takers may wear and, more centrally, where the declared ‘allegiance’ or commitment is limited to obeying the law.

In contrast, Rainer Bauböck argues that mandatory oaths for new citizens might be defended if understood as signalling their new membership and affiliation. He limits this defense to circumstances in which democracies are under siege from forces without and within, as they could be said to be today. He suggests that part of the value of an oath is that it performatively signals one’s commitment to defend one’s democracy from internal enemies, while the oath itself should express a commitment to some universal values which don’t impose on freedom of conscience.

I join Lenard and Bauböck in holding that immigrant citizenship oaths may be morally defended. In my view, consent and political obligation are the wrong way to think about citizenship oaths, which is also to say that many recent state oaths are misconceived. Like Bauböck, I think that a defensible pledge centres on oath-takers’ change in membership. However, I argue that this perspective should be taken further, back to the concept of naturalisation itself. Unlike Bauböck, I would not link citizenship oaths to defending democracy, implicitly or otherwise, and am sceptical that there is an unproblematic values component. Instead, I suggest that the oath or ceremonial statement should be limited to conveying one’s new membership and affiliation.

Before explaining these points, let me say that I find compelling Christine Hobden’s, Zara Goldstone and Avia Pasternak’s, and Jaeeun Kim’s cautions about certain historical and political contexts. There is something elementally wrong, for instance, about a state demanding anything much from people seeking asylum as a consequence of what it has wrought on their home country. Still, if some political circumstances undermine the case for imposing citizenship oaths, other political circumstances, as Bauböck observes, may recommend them. In my remarks, I put aside the force of particular political circumstances to treat the question of whether mandating citizenship pledges for new members can be morally justified as a general matter.

The red herring of social contract theory

For Lenard, a key factor in favour of mandatory oaths for new citizens is that these afford them the opportunity to consent to the political authority and laws that will govern them. What could be more liberal?

Liberals have been beguiled by consent and social contract as the foundations of liberal legitimacy for centuries, so it takes more than a comment to dispel these suppositions. Nevertheless, the present subject confounds a social contract approach in all sorts of ways. Lior ErezAshwini VasankathumarDaniel Sharp, and Christine Hobden highlight aspects of a central conundrum facing Lenard’s argument: either consenting to political authority and to obey the law is exclusively being asked of immigrants seeking citizenship, in which case it breaches equality, or such consent is something that native-born and permanent residents also grant implicitly, in which case such oaths for naturalising citizens are unnecessary.

Bauböck rightly notes that no state abides by Locke’s theory that citizenship – what Locke calls being a “perfect member” of a political society – is established only through expressly subjecting oneself to the political authority (John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, VIII.119). That would mean only immigrants who took an oath of obedience are citizens today; so-called native-born citizens aren’t citizens at all. Even more incongruously, on Locke’s theory only visitors and the native-born would be entitled to exit the political community; anyone taking the oath is forever a citizen and locked into that community (unless the government engages in “a long train of abuses”). While opposed to such restrictions, Helen Irving suggests that oaths of allegiance in democratic states operate in that way: “no prevarication or equivocation is permitted” after the initial choice to take the oath. However, that’s not the case even with full throttle oaths of allegiance. Naturalised citizens of most democracies retain the options of voice and exit in addition to that of loyalty; they may protest, leave, and renounce their acquired citizenship in various ways.

Might, then, Lenard’s argument be saved, as David Owen suggests, by requiring an oath also from native-born citizens at the age of majority? There is an elementary reason why democratic states do not entertain such a policy: what follows for those who decline to take the oath? Peter Schuck and Rogers Smith (1985) once proposed that every citizen in the United States be given the opportunity, at the age of majority, to decline their American citizenship and to self-expatriate. They argued that a failure to expatriate voluntarily should be taken as tacitly consenting again to one’s citizenship, or else be met by allowing objectors to remain as permanent resident aliens. But many objectors will not have anywhere to expatriate to, being a citizen of no other country. So it would be wrong to read their non-self-expatriation as tacit acceptance of anything. And depending on numbers, demoting them to permanent residency risks creating a divided society and the government becoming (even more) non-representative.

Finally, if contract and consent were genuinely involved in a citizenship oath, it would require at least one asterisk specifying terms and conditions, not only regarding what the state expects and will provide but also what the individual is prepared to accept under whichever general commitments are specified. If that be ‘to obey the law’, one would want exempting clauses, for example, in cases of the government pursuing unjust wars or laws to which the individual might conscientiously object. An oath of law-abidingness does not come close to respecting genuinely contracting parties.

Understanding citizenship oaths as a social contract bequeaths all these difficulties and more.

Getting back to naturalisation

Let us return, then, to the concept of naturalisation. It is the idea that newcomers become members by being inducted into a society and immersed in its ways over years, and thereby develop an intellectual and affective identification with it, mirroring the experience of native-born citizens. Naturalisation is the opposite of the cold and abstract terms of a momentary contract. Of course, citizenship oaths are typically the culmination of a prescribed number of years of residency. But then the work is done through that residency; any contractual oath is, at best, redundant and, at worst, corrosive of the sentimental bonds established by injecting a clashing idiom into the relationship. I detect something of this souring in Vasanthakumar’s account of her Canadian experience.

Acquiring membership in a national political community involves developing new relationships and bonds over a period of time. It is these relationships that sustain liberal legitimacy: it is our constitution, our institutions, our government, and our state passed down by our forebears. We do not proactively consent to these things but rather assent to them through inheritance. We agree to them insofar as we do not dissent. This is Ernest Renan’s ([1882] 2018) metaphorical “daily plebiscite” that is a nation: we vote by continuing to live together; we don’t vote to continue to live together. Naturalised citizens elect to join this chain of community.   

This is also why democratic citizenship is not generally contingent on obeying the law: the offenders are our burglars, rapists, and murderers. Nor does it depend on wholesale loyalty or abstract allegiance; do not a sizeable number of our fellow citizens barrack for their birth country team over their home team in international competitions? In 2019, the Hindustan Times declared that “It’s now OK to fail Tebbit’s infamous cricket “test””, referring to Lord Norman Tebbit’s proposed test of loyalty for immigrants that they support the English cricket team. In truth, it was always okay. Many native-born citizens also have multiple attachments and allegiances, amply managed. Where there are bonds and identification, there is no need for loyalty tests.

In recent times, many democracies have responded to global migration, global terror, and public moral panic over Islam and Muslims by embracing the form and language of contract and obligation regarding citizenship. Some, such as Australia, have exchanged their old pledges of allegiance for this language. While reminiscent of early liberal political thought, this language is at odds with democratic states’ traditional practice of naturalisation as the mechanism of immigrant absorption. This iteration of an earlier modern shift in social relations from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft (Ferdinand Tönnies [1887] 1955) is undoubtedly connected to broader contemporaneous currents such as neoliberalism, managerialism, and corporatisation that reshaped institutions and societies over the past half century.

Perhaps given this broader context, it is quaint to think that the traditional reliance on naturalisation can be retrieved. On the other hand, the current ‘contract and obligation’ approach doesn’t appear to be working all that well, and little wonder as it undercuts the very kind of social relations and bonds that democratic governments and societies still seek. They want contract to do the work of integration that only naturalisation can provide.

Now, it might be objected that membership of anything typically comes with a set of entitlements and obligations, and swearing obedience on citizenship acquisition is no different. For example, for some four hundred years, every reader at the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford was required to take an oral oath vowing not to remove or deface any volume, introduce any fire or flame, and to obey the Library’s rules. In some versions, like the one I took, one also vowed not to bring goats into the Library. All of these things may reasonably be assumed of any responsible user of the Library. Readers at other Oxford libraries were not so burdened with an oath. Yet few were those over centuries who felt slighted by the Bodleian requirement or protested the ritual as unfair or morally indefensible. Citizenship differs, however, in being more than a set of entitlements and obligations; it is also a set of identifications, with people, land, place, language, culture, history, and fate. And acquiring these is a process. There is no equivalent to naturalisation in joining a library.

The objection that it’s unfair to require only immigrant citizens to take an oath – which some contributors to this forum make in the context of soliciting allegiance, law-abidingness, or political consent – loses its force with an affiliation, membership, and naturalisation perspective. For only immigrants decide to join a political community (I do not say decide to leave their community to join another as many retain strong identification with their country of birth.) Vasanthakumar rightly observes that integration is not something only immigrants do. But deciding to throw one’s lot in with a new national community is. This, more than any bundle of rights and obligations, distinguishes naturalised citizens from native-born citizens, permanent residents, and tourists. It is a decision and transition worthy of being publicly marked in some way.

Marking the transition

I agree with Lenard that it is appropriate to mark the culmination of naturalisation and the acquisition of citizenship with occasion and ceremony. Unless one considers countries to be like hotels, citizenship acquisition through naturalisation in a new society is a significant transition in a person’s life. Several contributors to this debate suggest that the expressive and ceremonial dimensions could be achieved through a voluntary celebratory event. But that  would be like having a wedding celebration at which the newlyweds aren’t present or do not address the gathering. (Any state requirement in this regard would perforce make due allowance for extenuating circumstances.)

One option is a ceremony at which new citizens are invited to share something of their experience, whether this be pre-arranged or, karaoke-like, spontaneous at the event. I daresay, however, that most people would appreciate a prepared statement to mark the occasion. If not allegiance to country or crown or a commitment to obey the law, what should be in that statement?

Bauböck suggests a commitment to some universal values without impinging on freedom of conscience. But how feasible is this? “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness“? Plagiarism. “I affirm my belief in democracy and the equal moral worth of individuals“? Hold on, what about groups and non-human animals! “Freedom and justice for all“? Why then am I bothering to become a citizen…?

I agree with Bauböck that the ceremonial act of consummating naturalisation with an oath or statement performatively signals one’s new status and place in the community. That has value for the new citizen and for the established community. I can’t agree, however, with imbuing this act with a commitment to defend democracy, local or universal. That kind of strong obligation is an involved question turning on the presumed foundation and purpose of the state, which historically has divided liberals and republicans (Michael Walzer 1970). A citizenship oath best avoids such controversy.    

I think a minimalist expression of commitment is appropriate, one which abandons the language of consent and contract and of rights and obligations and instead affirms the point and purpose of naturalisation. Something like: ‘On this day, I am proud [or pleased] to become a [Nationality] and look forward to participating in and contributing to the life of [Country] as best I can’.

Sometimes less is more.