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

Mandatory naturalisation oaths: a small price to pay that shouldn’t be asked

Ashwini Vasanthakumar (Queen’s University)

Patti Lenard defends selectively mandatory oaths of allegiance that are required only from naturalising citizens. She does so on three grounds: (1) taking the oath “signals the voluntary consent of new citizens to the authority of their new state of citizenship”; (2) the oath “solemnizes the moment new citizens commit themselves to the state,” reassuring current citizens that they take citizenship seriously; and (3) the oath is significant to new citizens, “who are happy and excited to join a new state.” Lenard limits her defence to oaths requiring allegiance understood as “a commitment to obey the law,” and where the circumstances of taking the oath and content of the oath are not objectionable on grounds she outlines. Oaths of allegiance, according to Lenard, “mark a meaningful milestone” in the process “by which newcomers are welcomed into a community, and by which they come to feel like they belong.”

Most of my response will critique Lenard’s nuanced defence, which presents the most normatively compelling account of selectively mandatory oaths. I nevertheless reject this account, and , drawing on my citizenship ceremony in Canada, I reflect on what mandatory oaths can express and how they may be counter-productive to making us newcomers “feel like [we] belong.” I am relieved to be a Canadian and take my citizenship seriously in spite of the mandatory oath and all that it represents.

What is consensual about a mandatory oath?

Lenard’s defence of selectively mandatory oaths relies on some background assumptions, including about the nature of authority and the role of consent in establishing this authority. Even on its own terms, however, Lenard’s defence does not establish that selectively mandatory oaths are either necessary or sufficient to signal voluntary consent, to solemnize moments of commitment, or to provide newcomers with opportunities for celebration. As Lenard observes, naturalisation is a choice and one that often is costly and time-consuming. Undertaking this process would seem sufficient to signal “the voluntary consent of new citizens;” well before they take an oath, naturalising immigrants have signalled a willingness to obey the law (unlike their natural-born counterparts, who generally are free to break the law without their allegiance being called into question). As Lior Erez argues in his response, the oath is superfluous, especially when it is understood in the minimal terms Lenard endorses.

Lenard provides an analogy with university: once students have made the decision to pursue a graduate degree in Policy Studies, they are subject to the degree’s mandatory Applied Ethics course. First, this analogy is question-begging: at issue is whether oaths should be a mandatory part of the process of naturalisation, so simply pointing to the fact that individuals consent to this process is beside the point. To use Lenard’s analogy, when we, as university lecturers and departments, are asked to provide an account of our curricular choices, it is no answer to note that our students signed up for the degree and therefore no explanation is necessary, provided that a curricular requirement is not “truly objectionable.” More is needed to justify the requirements we impose.

This analogy is illuminating, however, precisely because of the disanalogies between a graduate degree and citizenship. For one, an Applied Ethics course seems integral to Policy Studies: it might be a safe assumption that someone who wishes to pursue graduate studies in Policy Studies would benefit from or need an Applied Ethics course. It is unclear that an oath similarly is integral to being a citizen; indeed, we know it is not because most citizens never take an oath. Second, typically all students are required to take mandatory courses. Perhaps naturalising citizens are like remedial students who need additional coursework. But this brings us back to the problem that the oath is superfluous: if there is extra work that naturalising citizens need to do, the oath will not suffice (tests showing knowledge of language, history, and democratic procedures are another matter). And third, and most significantly in my view, the choice exercised in these contexts is not merely of different degrees but kinds. Pursuing a graduate degree is part of a plan or project; citizenship provides the framework of rights and resources within which particular plans or projects even become options. As Lenard notes, some of us must brave life-threatening journeys, jump through interminable hoops, pay large sums of money to enjoy the options that others take as their birthright. Having made it as far as the naturalisation ceremony, not many would balk at a mandatory oath, when it is all that stands between them and the several securities of citizenship in a wealthy liberal democracy like Canada, the United States or Western Europe. Among other things, this means that a citizenship oath is not sufficient, by itself, to signal someone’s ‘voluntary consent’. Mandatory requirements in high-stakes contexts have a way of obscuring, rather than expressing, individual intent.

That selectively mandatory oaths may not suffice to show consent also undermines Lenard’s second argument: oaths are a way for new citizens to “publicly accept the responsibilities of citizenship in exchange for the protection offered by citizen status.” In addition, the oath seems superfluous. Satisfying the myriad requirements of naturalisation should be sufficient to reassure “current citizens that incoming citizens have done the work they need to warrant citizenship status…and that they can be trusted to take their role as citizens in their new state seriously.” Moreover, there exists no reciprocal reassurance to naturalising citizens from natural-born citizens. (Lenard notes that the state provides reassurance to naturalising citizens that it will protect their rights, but this says nothing about current citizens.) For some unstated reason, Lenard assumes that this reassurance needs to be provided only by naturalising citizens to current citizens, despite all the hoops through which they have already jumped; those who are natural born are assumed “to warrant citizenship status [and] be trusted to take their role as citizens …seriously.”

Lenard tries to do away with this apparent asymmetry between natural-born and naturalised citizens. She argues that “the mechanisms by which incoming and natural-born citizens offer their consent need not be the same.” This may well be true, except that on Lenard’s account simply being alive in a liberal democracy is enough to show consent. It is unclear at times whether Lenard is relying on tacit consent theory or is arguing that the state’s authority can be justified even in the absence of consent provided its exercise of authority satisfies certain conditions.  I’m not sure either account helps Lenard address the asymmetry that Liav Orgad deems unacceptable. First, many natural-born citizens do not participate in democratic processes or are law-breakers; does Lenard see them as withholding consent? Furthermore, a not-insignificant proportion of natural-born citizens have reason to reject the state’s authority and its justifications, such as Indigenous peoples, racialised groups, religious minorities, the poor and the unhoused. That they remain within the state’s territory, comply with its laws, and occasionally participate in its democratic processes does not cure the lack of legitimate authority over them nor should be treated as consent. At least some current citizens, therefore, cannot provide reassurance of their law-abidingness to newcomers. Their citizenship status does not thereby become unwarranted, nor does it mean that they do not take their role as citizens seriously—it means only that being earnest and diligent citizens need not translate into obedience to the state’s commands. Indeed, active citizenship is consistent with working to fundamentally re-shape the state, including through disobedience. Selectively mandatory oaths therefore enact two forms of asymmetry. First, they demand a superfluous reassurance from naturalising citizens with no reciprocal obligation on the part of current citizens. Second, they relegate naturalising citizens to a narrow conception of citizenship as obedience to the state’s commands. Oaths are neither necessary nor sufficient for the task of providing reassurance, and the asymmetric demand for reassurance introduces an as-yet-unjustified inequality.

Lenard’s final argument rests on the meaning that oath-taking has for naturalising citizens. “Ethnographic research,” she claims, “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.” Some of the ethnographic research Lenard cites pertains to voluntary citizenship ceremonies, only some of which involve an oath. It is unclear how this evidence bears on a selectively mandatory oath. This evidence also provides no normative justification whatsoever and might even counsel against selectively mandatory oath-taking: compulsory celebrations that only some people must attend can be something of a buzzkill. Indeed, the Canadian court challenge that Lenard briefly addresses provides countervailing empirical evidence she does not consider: at least some naturalising citizens are not “happy and excited,” but instead felt “somewhat humiliated,” so much so that they were willing to go to court over it and publicly disavow a portion of the oath. At most, the ethnographic research Lenard cites makes the case for optional oaths, and perhaps one available to all citizens (after all, why deny natural-born citizens opportunities for emotional catharsis?)

Lenard is aware of the dark readings of mandatory oaths and other “moves to create national belonging and generate pride and loyalty among naturalised citizens.” She offers a “benign and even optimistic” interpretation, arguing that selectively mandatory oaths are an expression of voluntary consent, a public reassurance to current citizens, and an occasion for celebration. These arguments do not support a selectively mandatory oath. A mandatory oath is not necessary to achieve these nor is it sufficient; indeed, the mandatory nature of the oath inhibits its communicative potential, and its selective nature can be counterproductive to welcoming newcomers as equal members of the polity.

Why is integration something only immigrants do?

Lenard’s thought-provoking essay prompted me to revisit my citizenship ceremony in Canada, more than 20 years ago. It was one of the rare institutional events in Canada where immigrants and people of colour were in a majority, and where we could therefore express relief, happiness, and gratitude without performing the role of ‘the grateful immigrant’ that is demanded, however implicitly, by so many liberal Canadians. One person was wearing a tuxedo with a red bowtie. Already law-abiding, I would have preferred not to swear an oath of allegiance and certainly not one to the Queen and her heirs and successors—which, to be clear, Lenard neither defends nor rejects. But the oath could have been in Klingon for all I cared. In the grotesquely unequal world we inhabit, citizenship overdetermines life chances. When natural-born citizens from affluent states worry about the consent, loyalty, and the worthiness of newcomers, it’s a little like listening to a wealthy heir earnestly discuss the importance of hard work.

Lenard presents her arguments as a counterpoint to criticisms that citizenship ceremonies and selectively mandatory oaths originate in Islamophobia and more generalised xenophobia. These political forces tend to announce themselves as such. More insidious, to my mind, are liberal concerns about immigration and integration, “worry[ing] 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.” The seemingly benign framing of this concern assumes a lot that goes unexplained. How does one “ensure” that people integrate? Who gets to define “effective integration?” Whose worries about inadequate or ineffective integration matter and why? And why is integration something only immigrants do? 

You cannot hector people into affection and loyalty; you earn it. Instead of focusing on immigrants and why they will not integrate, immigrant-receiving countries might better spend their time addressing the deep injustices that lay at their foundation and endure into the present, and the racial, religious, and class hierarchies that are carefully nurtured even as they are officially disavowed. At a time of critical reckoning about the founding of the Canadian state and of imminent demographic change, a selectively mandatory oath of allegiance to an overwhelmingly white institution complicit in colonialism and slavery certainly has expressive functions that will reassure some current citizens—just not in the way Lenard contemplates. I now think of the selectively mandatory oath as quintessentially Canadian, a way that liberal Canadians can congratulate themselves on their magnanimity in being so welcoming, all the while reminding you that you’re in their house and they set the price of entry.      

As Lenard notes, integration is a process. My sense of belonging in Canada has happened over time, through institutional and interpersonal interactions with other Canadians who see Canadian citizenship as a complicated bond that connects us to local and global struggles for justice and dignity, and that commits us to creating a place that is worthy of all the peoples who make it their home. For all this, an oath was a small price to pay perhaps, but that does not mean it should have been asked.