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

Evaluating the effectiveness of naturalisation oaths

Yossi Harpaz (Tel Aviv University)

Patti Lenard’s kickoff essay provides an intriguing starting point for a fascinating and timely debate: should new citizens pledge allegiance in a naturalisation oath? Lenard answered this question affirmatively, sparking a provocative ethical discussion which carries direct policy implications. Most of the contributions focused on the normative dimension, cautiously justifying loyalty oaths (Lenard, Owen, Bauböck, Banting) or claiming that such a requirement would be unfair (Sharp), oppressive (Hobden, Orgad) or even counterproductive (Vasanthakumar, Orgad).

It is generally agreed that naturalisation oaths are not an unacceptable violation of human rights, nor are they an indispensable requirement for citizenship acquisition. Therefore, the normative question can be put as inquiring whether the expected benefits outweigh the costs. It is crucial, then, to specify the costs and benefits by answering the following empirical question: Do oaths increase immigrants’ sense of belonging and their acceptance by society, or do they produce exclusion and alienation? Unfortunately, as contributors including Sharp, Banting and Orgad have noted, empirical research that directly addresses the effects of loyalty oaths is scarce.

This contribution advances the discussion by framing the effectiveness of oaths as an empirical puzzle and outlining a research program to examine their effects. The findings of the proposed research could provide a solid basis for normative and policy discussions on the merits and demerits of naturalisations oath. I analyse two kinds of effects: on the naturalising immigrant and the receiving society. I propose hypotheses for each effect and outline potential research methodologies to test them.

Effect on immigrants

Enhanced Belonging: Proponents of loyalty oaths, including Lenard, argue they increase immigrants’ sense of belonging. The literature suggests two mechanisms for this effect. First, a public, solemn commitment to a new country of citizenship may lead immigrants to align their behavior to avoid cognitive dissonance – a contradiction between self-image and actions (Festinger 1957). Second, a loyalty oath ritualises the transition into citizenship. I define ritual as a scripted action carrying symbolic meaning (Bell 1992). Rituals enhance the subjective significance of events and serve as mnemonic devices (Rossano 2012; Whitehouse and Lanman 2014; Durkheim 1965[1912]; Henrich, 2016). By including a scripted and active component in naturalisation procedures, an oath can make citizenship acquisition more subjectively meaningful and more memorable for participants. This perspective suggests that an oath of citizenship would strengthen national identification, and mandatory oaths would boost the identification of naturalising citizens across the board.

Alienation: Critics argue that mandatory oaths can backfire. Functioning as a loyalty test, they may alienate immigrants, particularly if they perceive a double standard compared to native-born citizens. This sentiment could be stronger when the testing function is overt, as in the case of observant Muslim women in Canada briefly required to remove face veils when taking the oath (Winter 2018). This approach predicts that mandatory oaths might weaken national identification among naturalised citizens.

It may seem as if the enhanced belonging and alienation approaches lead to directly opposite predictions. Reality may be more nuanced: a mandatory oath might reinforce national identification among certain immigrant groups (e.g., middle-class or European-origin) while alienating others (e.g., working-class or non-Europeans). Empirical literature on naturalisation ceremonies, often including oaths (Verkaiik 2010; Byrne 2014; Aptekar 2015; Damsholt 2018; Harper 2018), is largely qualitative and shows diverse responses. The evidence lends support to both hypotheses, showing stronger identification among some respondents and alienation among others. A quantitative study could measure effects of oaths on a large sample, identifying different impacts and their correlates. However, isolating the oath’s effect is challenging due to the overarching impact of citizenship acquisition. For a naturalising immigrant, the oath is a small detail compared to the major step of becoming a citizen (Vasanthakumar), which entails receiving a passport, gaining secure residence, the right to vote and more, and it is difficult to isolate it. Thus, more ethnographic and interview-based studies are needed to understand immigrants’ perceptions of the oath. Establishing the effect of oaths on immigrants’ identity in a statistically rigorous, replicable manner is unlikely.

Screening by Loyalty: Historically, oaths distinguished allies from enemies (Irving, Kim, Orgad). This function is controversial today, and Lenard does not advocate screening as a desirable function of oaths. Nonetheless, it makes sense to examine whether oaths screen for loyalty, as citizenship tests have been used for this purpose (Orgad 2010, 2014). Disloyalty can be understood in the narrow sense as opposition to the current political system, or more broadly (and controversially) as failure to accept foundational values like gender equality (ibid.). An empirical study could analyse the characteristics of naturalised immigrants to identify a selection effect by political, cultural, or religious orientation, comparing countries with and without mandatory oaths or before-and-after scenarios in countries introducing such oaths.

Effect on receiving societies

Signaling: An oath is not just supposed to change the individual who takes it; it is also an important political spectacle that has an expressive function vis-à-vis the receiving society (Lenard, Sharp, Bauböck). An oath of loyalty is a ritual enactment of joining the national collective. The naturalisation ceremony and the oath are a rite of passage (Van Gennep 1909) that marks the transformation of foreigners into citizens. Such rituals typically include shedding an old identity and embracing a new one. An applicant who recites a scripted oath publicly expresses her submission and receptiveness to the rules and the values of new society. This kind of demonstration is at the heart of most rites of passage. From an anthropological perspective, a naturalising immigrant’s loyalty oath is not all that different from a confirmation ceremony, a bar-mitzvah – or a hazing session for students who join a fraternity. The letter of the oath is of lesser significance than the public submission to the collective. Social scientists such as Durkheim (1965[1912]) and Turner (1964) have emphasised the universal need for ritualising belonging. Thus, mandatory oaths could enhance native populations’ acceptance of immigrants, producing the reassuring, trust-enhancing effects mentioned by Lenard, Owen and Banting.

Labeling: Conversely, mandatory oaths might label immigrants as suspects who need to prove their loyalty (Sharp). This use of the oath to weed out the disloyal also has a long history, as Irving and Kim note. Such a perception could lead to the stigmatisation of immigrants. Scholars including Orgad (2010, 2014) and Winter (2018) have noted the rise of formal and informal tests in Western democracies targeting specific groups, especially observant Muslims.

The signaling and labeling approaches suggest contrasting outcomes for mandatory oaths. The former predicts increased acceptance of immigrants, while the latter implies potential stigmatisation. One way to test this relationship empirically would be to compare attitudes in the general population across societies, as in Banting’s preliminary analysis. It would be useful to expand that comparison, including more countries across multiple years. A limitation of this approach is that there may be too many intervening factors affecting attitudes on immigration, making it difficult to isolate the effect of the oath. Moreover, we cannot assume respondents’ knowledge about naturalisation procedures. Therefore, another promising avenue of research would be to carry out a quasi-experimental survey that would inquire about respondents’ attitudes towards immigrants while exposing some of them to texts that highlight the loyalty oath and others to texts that do not mention it.


In this contribution, I have outlined a research agenda that can shed light on the key empirical questions relevant to naturalisation oaths: Do mandatory oaths increase immigrants’ sense of belonging and their acceptance by society, or do they stigmatize and alienate them? Having the answers to these questions will not magically resolve the complex ethical questions involved, but they would provide a solid factual ground for the debate.

In conclusion, I will hazard my own conjectures about the outcomes of the proposed research agenda. Concerning the effect on immigrants, I believe that subsequent studies will continue to find wide variation across persons and groups, without one clearly-defined effect. Regarding the screening effect, I believe that a mandatory oath will act as a deterrent for immigrants who harbour political opposition to their countries of residence. There are numerous known instances where political rivalry or suspicion lowers interest in acquiring citizenship (for example, one reason for Mexican immigrants’ low naturalisation rate in the U.S. is a traditional reluctance to “humiliate” Mexico by becoming American (Harpaz 2019)). Finally, concerning the effect on public views on immigrants, I suspect that whether oaths act as a positive signal of integration or a negative mark of suspicion will depend to a large extent on the political and media framing around the oath, and around naturalisation more broadly.


Aptekar, Sofya. 2015. The road to citizenship: what naturalisation means for immigrants and the United States. Rutgers University Press.

Bell, Catherine. 1992. Ritual theory, ritual practice. Oxford University Press.

Byrne, Bridget. 2014. Making citizens: Public rituals and personal journeys to citizenship. Springer.

Damsholt, Tine. 2018. “‘I didn’t think I would be emotional until I started saying the oath’–emotionalising and ritualising citizenship.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 44.16 (2018): 2701-2716

Durkheim, Emile. 1965 [1912]. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Free Press.

Festinger, Leon. 1957. A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press.

Harpaz, Yossi. 2019. Citizenship 2.0: Dual Nationality as a Global Asset. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Harper, Robin A. 2018. “Deconstructing naturalisation ceremonies as public spectacles of citizenship.” Digesting the Public Sphere. Routledge. 92-107.

Henrich, Joseph. 2016. The Secret of Our Success. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Orgad, Liav. 2010. Illiberal liberalism cultural restrictions on migration and access to citizenship in Europe. The American Journal of Comparative Law58(1), 53-105.

Orgad, Liav. 2014. Liberalism, allegiance, and obedience: The inappropriateness of loyalty oaths in a liberal democracy. Canadian journal of law & jurisprudence27(1), 99-122.

Rossano, Matt J. 2012. “The essential role of ritual in the transmission and reinforcement of social norms.” Psychological bulletin 138.3: 529-549.

Turner, Victor. 1964. Betwixt and Between: The liminal period in rites of passage. The Proceedings of the New American Ethnological Society, Symposium on New Approaches to the Study of Religion, pp. 4-20.

Verkaaik, Oskar. 2010. “The Cachet Dilemma: Ritual and Agency in New Dutch Nationalism”. American Ethnologist, 37(1): 69–82.

Van Gennep, Arnold. 1909. Les rites de passage. Paris: Émile Nourry.

Whitehouse, Harvey, and Jonathan A. Lanman. 2014. “The ties that bind us: Ritual, fusion, and identification.” Current Anthropology 55.6: 674-695.

Winter, Elke. 2018. “Passing the Test? From Immigrant to Citizen in a Multicultural Country.” Social Inclusion 6.3 (2018): 229-236.