Allegiance is now on the fast track. College football, major league baseball and the NFL are still with us and so are apple pie, the Flag and election campaigns. Autumn will bring a great ebbing and flowing of American fidelity as sure as the tidal pull of the moon.
For most Americans, a signal of allegiance often hap-pens by instinct, a rite that seems second nature. The words, the ceremonies, the tunes have become routine, a cycle of rote and repetitious pageantry that mills away our coating of fidelity. Allegiance is whisked along in brief moments that leave little time for thought to its design or rationale.
At political rallies and sports events, anthems will ring out and oaths will be sworn. American allegiance will be front and center for the candidate, the party faithful, the television camera and twitter feed. Group fealty becomes an obligation for all but the toddler busy with a popsicle. Woe unto those caught chatting it up with friends or scrolling through Facebook during the National Anthem. At these gathering moments of fealty, negligence is not an option – not officially, that is.
We were reminded recently that school teachers in Kansas, and perhaps other states, must sign a loyalty oath to the U.S. Constitution as a condition of employment. This is a different kind of allegiance, one that is demanded rather than inspired.
An attorney for the state Association of School Boards cites state law, its roots well into the last century, requiring any public employee – local, city or state – to “sub-scribe in writing to the oath set out in K.S.A. 54-106.
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the state of Kansas, and faithfully discharge the duties of ____. So, help me God.”
We are all for the Constitution. It is fundamental to the way this nation governs itself and writes laws that keep the country mostly on an even keel. It sets out how we go about living in this country. And that’s the tricky part: how we live as opposed to how we ought to live, the difference between loyalty and obedience.
The Constitution is a living instrument, one that is apt to change from time to time, that inspires civility and freedom but does not command fidelity. Our parents could order us to be civil or to eat our vegetables – or suffer consequences. The Constitution, though, is designed to trade in freedoms, not broccoli.
So it’s curious that public employees must sign an oath to it – to state their beliefs in order to hold their jobs. This seems inconsistent with Constitutional theory.
The acts of any citizen, public employee or other-wise, may be open to inspection, but not their thoughts. And thoughts arise immediately. To which Constitution is allegiance sworn? The document of Jefferson and Madison? The one before prohibition and direct election of presidents, or the one that changed with suffrage, Miranda, the ERA? Some teachers and other public employees may have doubts about, say, the first or second amendments to the Constitution or believe the document holds other flaws. Nonetheless they must sign an oath to support it – that or put their jobs in jeopardy.
The Kansas oath may have come on assumption that when checking for loyalty, the government would use its powers sparingly and wisely – a wistful idea. When people gain power over others’ minds or allegiance, it is rarely used sparingly or wisely, but often lavishly and brutally and with unspeakable results.
Not long ago our secretary of state travelled crossed Kansas demanding that Republican legislators sign policy loyalty oaths. Legislators who declined were pronounced disloyal; many were purged in the 2012 elections. Others who submitted followed their new orders and nearly brought the government to bankruptcy.
It wasn’t quite the brutality of Orwell’s thought control, but its stepchild. One loyalty oath leads to another, and before we know it we have sworn not to be a communist, or a Muslim, or to kneel at a football game or join a chess club.
It is not yet a crime to believe most anything in America. It has never been illegal to believe in Buddhism, or God, or even Putin. The Constitution has never bound us to think one way or another, or to sign a pledge of loyalty. But if we are not careful, the siren call of allegiance may bring on the idea that people can be convicted not for wrongdoing but for wrong-believing.