Promises, Promises: Arizona’s Proposed Loyalty oath and its troubling implications

Normally, the bloggy part of my brain is all about money, frugality, or crafts.  But today, I must take a detour and talk about something different.

Did you know that Arizona is proposing a loyalty oath for High School graduates?  The Arizona representatives that authored this proposal want this oath to be required to graduate high school.

http://legiscan.com/AZ/text/HB2467  (text of the bill)

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/01/25/arizona-republicans-propose-bill-that-would-not-allow-atheists-to-graduate-high-school/

Most of what I’ve read on this bill comes from the atheist community online, so I’ve seen more critiques of the forced religion aspect (well, at least forced Christianity, because when an American politician talks of a god, you know they don’t mean Allah, Thor, Brigid, or Amaterasu).  And even though I am just the cutest little heathen you ever want to meet, the “So help me god” part of the oath isn’t the most bothersome part of the proposal.  Don’t get me wrong, that in of itself is wrong, but the entire undertaking is what disturbs me the most.  The very idea of a forced loyalty oath, especially forced on young people, is reprehensible. 

Let’s break this down.  What is this proposed oath? Why am I so pissed off?  I copied it from the LegiScan site (http://legiscan.com/AZ/text/HB2467) so we could look at the text for ourselves, line by line and you can see my objections.  The oath text is in caps:

I, _________, DO SOLEMNLY SWEAR THAT I WILL SUPPORT AND DEFEND THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES AGAINST ALL ENEMIES, FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC,

Remember, this is a high school student.  This could be your teenage son or daughter.  Why does it sound like they are taking political office?

THAT I WILL BEAR TRUE FAITH AND ALLEGIANCE TO THE SAME;

“True Faith”.  There’s a troubling phrase.  If you’re going to have faith in something or someone, you have to give it.  True faith is not forced – it is a gift from the believer.  Also, it is a weak power that demands the emotions of a person in addition to the actions.  This line tells me that these representatives think it’s not just enough to be a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen, but that you have to give your emotions as well.

I hate to drag poor Orwell into this prematurely, but remember how Winston “loved” Big Brother?  Obedience is the first step, and it’s never enough.

THAT I TAKE THIS OBLIGATION FREELY, WITHOUT ANY MENTAL RESERVATION OR PURPOSE OF EVASION;

“Without any mental reservation”.  These are teenagers, and unless some are indeed 18 at graduation, they can’t really give legal consent to anything.  They are deemed one giant “mental reservation” until they are legal adults!  Are these students now adults?  This is a pretty adult thing ot ask of them.  You can’t have it both ways, AZ reps!

AND THAT I WILL WELL AND FAITHFULLY DISCHARGE THESE DUTIES; SO HELP ME GOD. 

I think I’ve already said enough on the religious aspect for the moment.

**********

Ok, let’s look at this as a whole.  What would this oath prove?  What would be gained from dangling one of the keys to oh, just about everything in life (a diploma) over a teenager’s head and telling her that if she can’t fake obeisance, than too bad?

What happens if a student refuses?   What would she do, go to court?  What if her family doesn’t have the resources for a protracted legal battle?  What if she doesn’t get her diploma?  I imagine this young woman would need to then seek out a GED in order to get any kind of employment, or even to pursue higher education.

I honestly don’t know if the treatment of or opportunities for a GED holder differ significantly from a traditional diploma holder.  If they do, if GED holders aren’t considered exactly the same by colleges and employers, then we have a further problem.  This hypothetical student will have just been shafted for life because she refused to play along with a pantomime.  She will have started out that much farther behind her cohort because she used her brain and exercised her rights as an American citizen.  Congratulations, Arizona.  This is nothing if not educational – though not in the way your representatives expected.

Coming back out of hypothetical land for a moment, I’d like to point out that there’s this little thing in the US Constitution (which is still alive and kicking, last I looked) that addresses the fundamental wrongness of loyalty oaths, at least for federal employees.  It’s called the “No Religious Test” clause.  Our country has a bit of a history with forced obedience and religious oppression (which includes oppression *by* religion, mind you!).  So separating religious matters from civic matters was important enough for the authors of the Constitution to work out right from the start.  The original language, of course, says nothing about high school students, but I think it’s safe to say that the intend behind this little nugget is actually one of the guiding principles of the US, influencing every aspect of our civic life.  Or at least this idea is one we drag out of the china closet when company comes over.  But it’s still there, damn it!

Aside from trampling years upon years of US law, and thumbing its nose at the Constitution itself, this proposal instills a deeply disturbing lesson.  “Just obey the rules, don’t make waves, and you’ll be ok”.  This has never worked out well, especially coming from a governing body.  There are myriad law and regulations we do obey, but the bulk of these have good reasons, and you can find out why.  You can’t drive drunk, or burn someone’s house, or not pay your workers fairly – for tangible reasons.  Laws are not the enemy so much as stupid laws are.  And stupid laws are clearly posturing; they serve no practical purpose and may even be written out of malice.  This proposed bill, should it pass, is of that latter group.  At best, its political theater, and at worse, it’s a giant Fuck-You to anyone who’s not a very specific brand of Christian, or willing to fake that.

A loyalty oath does not ask for critical thought.  It is designed to make you make the right sounds, in the right order, to please someone with power over you.  The language, the rhetoric, even the ceremonies surrounding their recitation are designed to make you power your brain down and join in, lest you Do It  Wrong, Stand Out from Everyone, and Piss Off People. 

Look, for instance, at the Pledge of Alliegance.  I recited this every school morning for 14 years.  We had to stand, place our hands over our hearts, face the flag, and recite.  A class full of kids chanting “Ipledgeallegiancetotheflag….” by rote, barely knowing the words we were saying, and not considering why.

I did it for many years, until I started to examine the pledge and question it, as I hope my children will do one day.  When we take this particular oath, what are we promising?  What are we doing when we recite?  We give respect to our country, but do we know why?  Should we be performing this ceremony out of habit, or should we genuinely offer heartfelt words or actions?  In other words, should you respect an authority just because they are an authority, or when they have earned your respect?

I’m embarrassed to say that I mimed the pledge instead of questioning and making waves.  I’m not as plucky as I should be.  Also, I was a teenager, and it’s a rare teenager that has the wherewithal to really rebel like that.  At that age, most people simply don’t have the wisdom to be that critical.  It comes after we’re cranky adults, if it’s to come at all.  Asking a young person to do this sort of thing (even if they are intellectually precocious and critical of authority) is simply unfair.  We think the under-18 set is too immature to enter legal contracts, so why ask them this?

On a symbolic level, the Arizona proposal is offensive because it’s clearly more about theater than any actual content.  At least that’s where I’m coming from as an NJ resident – I assume a level of cynicism in all governmental matters that may not exist in AZ.  Perhaps these representatives truly believe this is necessary.  Or perhaps they got up one day and said “hey, you know what would really piss off the progressives?”  I don’t know, and I’m not sure I care to.  The reality is that this is making its way thought the legislative machine, using up time and resources that could have gone to addressing actual problems.  Unless Arizona is a wonderland of economic prosperity, environmental cleanliness, and humanitarian perfection, I’m sure they have more pressing matters that need attention.

 

 

 

-Liz

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