Since ancient times, oaths have been part of the fabric of society. Pledging allegiance to an individual, group, or deity has shaped identities, forged alliances, and catalyzed cultures.
Oaths are part of ancient Jewish, Hindu, Greek and Roman traditions. Oaths are found in the Old and New Testaments and in the Quran. The Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors today is one of the oldest documents in history. For over a millennium, English royalty has taken an oath at coronation to rule according to law, exercise justice with mercy, and to uphold the Church of England. Oaths are taken by Boy Scouts to do their duty to God and country, and by presidents, senators, and soldiers of the United States to support and defend the Constitution.
Today, the oaths we take are often sworn unconsciously and informally. There is no prescribed ceremony to become a fan of a sports team, for example. Yet the devotion and fervor supporters give their franchises are the same results oaths were designed to cultivate. In Dallas, where I live, it would not be uncommon to hear crowds insist that “Cowboys rule!” and “Eagles suck!” because of the loyalty Cowboys fans have sworn to their team and against the other teams in the NFC East. Even in a year like 2018, when Philadelphia won the Super Bowl and Dallas failed to make the playoffs, the Cowboys would rule and the Eagles would suck. And these simple, chanted platitudes may continue despite quantifiable data and according to unspoken oath.
As silly as it seems to thoughtful people, there exists enmity of various intensity between the drivers of Chevy trucks and Fords, Pepsi drinkers and Coke drinkers, Mac users and PC users. There are differences between brands that result in preference. But any hostility between them comes from an unspoken oath.
These are like the medieval oaths of fealty where vassals who worked the land swore allegiance to their lord who owned it. Whether the landowner practiced generosity and magnanimity, or a wicked abuse of power made no difference in the oath. Vassals would take it and live blindly by it.
America’s current political division is driven largely by these unconscious and informal oaths of fealty we make not to the United States, but to political parties. Just as pledging unspoken allegiance to a sports team makes an enemy of all other competition, having pledged fealty to one party cuts us off — by oath — to the ideas of and negotiations with another. This is dangerous ground for America. Because rather than pledging allegiance to our flag and our nation, we pledge our allegiance to dogma. And we do it at the expense of facts, logic, compromise, and progress.
As Americans, the Constitution is our common ground, not the platform of a party. When we place the latter over the former, we become Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians or whatever first, and Americans second. That is what oaths make us do, whether we’re aware of swearing them or not.
During the Republican National Convention in 2016, vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence famously said, “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order.” Whether we agree with Pence’s values or not, most of us can relate to his ranking of identity. But what Pence is calling out are not principles but groups. Pope Francis and members of the KKK identify as Christian, but have widely divergent principles. A fiscal conservative may not necessarily be a social one. And while Pence claims to be a Republican, many Never Trumpers do, too.
Even America itself is not a principle, but a nation founded on specific ideals. If you strongly identify as “American,” consider that white supremacists do, too. So allying ourselves with institutions or individuals can quickly render us blind sheep. But when we make oaths to principles born of thought and conscience, we give value and strength to our country as a whole, not just a red or blue platform.
It may be too late for this heated election. But consider disavowing the oaths you’ve silently, unknowingly taken. That means divorcing yourself from dogma, but not from the principles you hold. Debating well-considered principles and paths forward has always been part of the American experiment. But strictly aligning with the dogma of a political party, insisting that yours rules and the others suck is infantile, thoughtless, and carries America into dangerous territory. Because it keeps us as divided as the home and visiting sections of a college sports arena.