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

Too Hot or Too Cold: Pledges of Allegiance and the Liberal Dilemma

Lior Erez (Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford)

In her lead essay, Patti Tamara Lenard defends the requirement of a pledge of allegiance from newly naturalised citizens. The first part of the essay presents the positive case for this requirement. She argues that requiring such a pledge will signify the new citizens’ voluntary consent to the state’s authority, that it communicates and strengthens the mutual commitment and duties of fellow citizens, and that it provides further symbolic and psychological significance to the act of naturalisation itself. In the second part of the essay, she presents two constraints on the acceptability of pledges of allegiance. The first one is that the conditions of making the pledge must be compatible with new citizens’ religious and cultural commitments. The second involves the content of the oath, which for Lenard is only legitimate if it is “entirely thin”, and “understood minimally [as] a commitment to obey the law”.

In this contribution, I will present an internal challenge to this account. In brief, I will argue that the three positive reasons stand in tension with each other, and that together they are inconsistent with the constraints presented in the second half. While I tend to agree with recent arguments calling for the abolition of loyalty oaths for naturalising citizens, made for example by Liav Orgad  and Adam Lovett and Daniel Sharp, my more limited aim in this essay is to argue that Lenard’s position is stuck on the horns of a dilemma. To paraphrase Goldilocks: the pledge is either too hot to be defended by Lenard’s liberal framework, or too cold to serve its intended purpose.

Lenard argues that the requirement to pledge allegiance can be seen as voluntary because the choice to naturalise stays with the non-citizen, and as such can be viewed as expressing consent, in line with the liberal social contract tradition. Yet not all individual choice is meaningfully voluntary. As David Hume wrote in his 1748 treatise against the idea of the social contract, ‘[w]e may as well assert, that a man, by remaining in a vessel, freely consents to the dominion of the master; though he was carried on board while asleep, and must leap into the ocean, and perish, the moment he leaves her’. We have to consider an action as being voluntary only if the alternatives are sufficiently acceptable. My choice to hand over my wallet to the gun-wielding mugger is hardly voluntary, after all. Lenard recognises this, of course, as she qualifies the statement by saying that it is reasonable to treat the choice to naturalise as voluntary ‘in democratic states where most rights and obligations are protected for and possessed by both citizens and non-citizens of a territory’. That is, the choice not to naturalise is not so detrimental to the individual’s interests to make it an involuntary choice.

But if the status of citizens and non-citizens of a territory is more or less equal, what renders citizenship status ‘extremely valuable’? In light of Lenard’s second and third reasons for supporting a pledge of allegiance, if the rights and obligations of citizens and non-citizens are similar, it remains unclear what kind of commitment new citizens are making, what kind of new protections they are receiving in exchange, and why they would find the ceremony and the oaths meaningful. All of these transformations are meaningful only if being a citizen is different from being a resident non-citizen. If only citizens have the right to vote, to run for office, to leave and enter the country freely, and to know that they and their children have a stable stake in the country, the act of becoming a citizen marks a significant change in their status. The same is true for civic duties: explicitly taking on the duties of serving as a jury member, of participating actively in the shaping of the political community and its future, or of defending it against foreign and domestic threats, is indeed a signal to others that one can “be trusted to take [one’s] role as citizens in their new state seriously”. The thinner these duties are, the more indistinct the citizen is from the non-citizen, the less significant is naturalisation itself, and with it the oath. Note that I am not arguing against what Christian Joppke has described as the  ‘lightening of citizenship’, only pointing out that it is unclear how the meaningfulness of naturalisation can be squared with the claim that it is, in a full sense, voluntary.

Lenard might wish to resolve this apparent tension by suggesting that non-citizen residents’ rights are equally protected without naturalisation, and that becoming a citizen is an act of voluntarily taking on additional, meaningful duties. This strategy might defuse some of the force of my objection above, but it does so by creating a new problem with Lenard’s insistence on limiting the content of the oath to a pledge to ‘obey the law’. To highlight this problem, consider Lenard’s pre-emptive response to the objection that non-naturalised citizens are not required to make a similar pledge. This non-requirement is not necessarily a problem for civic equality, she argues, because consent to the state’s legitimate authority can be achieved through other mechanisms. But that raises an obvious question – why is the act of naturalisation, in itself, not sufficient to imply consent to the legitimate authority of the state, without requiring the naturalised to utter an explicit obligation? And if the pledge is necessary in the absence of paths to political participation, why are non-citizen residents (who are, after all, also obliged to obey the law) not required to take this oath when they immigrate to the country?

I suspect that the most plausible answer is that the oath is more than simply a declaration of one’s intention to obey the law. As Helen Irving argues in her excellent recent book on the subject, the act of naturalisation and the oath accompanying it are meant to contain “‘a promise of belonging, identifying oneself with fellow adherents and their values, and ‘forcing potential enemies to expose themselves by refusing to swear’”. New citizens become ‘one of us’ because, in effect, they are already one of us. This rather harsh assimilationist narrative is tamed, by Lenard’s rejection of strict ideological, ethnic, or religious requirements, and this is in line with her arguments elsewhere in defense of a cultural conception of liberal national identity. Lenard is also correct that citizens can always contest the meaning of citizenship and national identity, including the content of the oath itself, such that allegiance does not entail conformity. But the trouble remains political, rather than cultural; even if they are dissenting, the oath of allegiance is, as I have argued elsewhere, meant to allow citizens to be assured that others are acting for the common good of our political community, and not in order to advance the interests of some other group. I struggle to see how this end is served by a thin pledge to obey the law, without being supplemented with ‘thicker’ and more specific value-laden content, such as a commitment to a political identity or a normative ideal.

Lenard’s proposal, in summary, is either too hot or too cold. The kind of oath she defends is at odds with the reasons such an oath is viewed as necessary; and the kind of oath that aligns with these reasons would likely violate the liberal constraints she (in my view, justifiably) places on it.