On My Oath

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by Andrew Bard Smookler
A promise is always an important thing. But an oath is not just an ordinary promise. An oath is a promise made in such a way as to accentuate its importance, and to make it binding, as much as is possible to do.

An oath has been defined thus:

“Invocation of a supernatural or holy being called to verify the veracity of a statement… An oath was a special appeal, an expression of sincerity backed up by the threat of divine retribution should the uttering prove false — hence the term ‘oath-breaker’. An oathbreaker was assumed to have committed a crime against God or of some divine entity, which would lead to damnation or another form of severe penalty.”


A connection is explicitly made between the promise (relating to earthly matters) and the sacred realm. The promise is thus made a sacred thing. The result is that nothing can legitimately overrule the promise. It is stated in an unequivocal way — unequivocal, literally, in that there is no other “voice” that can equal, let alone supplant, the voice of the promise.

Historically, the taker of the oath consents to the severest of judgments should he violate that oath: “a crime against God…which would lead to damnation or another form of severe penalty.”

That is a part of the background for the “oath of office” which every member of the United States Congress takes.


And of the oath of office, it is said:

“Oaths of office are usually a statement of loyalty to a constitution or other legal text, as well as an oath to the state or religion the office holder will be serving. It is often considered a treasonous or highly illegal offense to betray one’s oath of office.”

“A treasonous or highly illegal offense…” Taking this oath is supposed to be no small thing.

And so, just what is it that Members of Congress promise that they will do? Here’s what they swear:

‘”I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”‘


This language about “defending…against all enemies” connects directly with another core part of the history of the oath that illuminates the meaning of the promise being taken: the oath of fealty taken by the person of lower rank (whether it be a knight to the king, or a serf to the noble).

In exchange for the protection provided by the lord, the “obliged” person swears an oath of fealty — from the Latin word fidelitas, or faithfulness — to commit himself fully to fight to protect the lord from enemies.

In that medieval world — a world beset by anarchy and the constant “war of all against all” that anarchy entails — these reciprocal commitments were a way of introducing a degree of order and coherence and faithfulness to limit the general chaos and the brutal rule of raw power. And the oath is brought in to harness the power of the sacred order — and the power of people’s allegiance to it — to bolster this effort to displace the chaos of mere gangsterism with the better order of promises made in good faith.

In the oath of fealty, the vassal commits himself to defend the lord whenever needed — no matter what, and to the utmost of his powers.

In the American system of government, the place of the “lord” (the higher party, who is the overarching protector to those below him) is taken by the Constitution of the United States. And quite fittingly, too: for the Constitution is indeed the most vital protector of the people of these United States.

And so each member of Congress is swearing a kind of fealty to that great protective document, the Constitution of the United States.

What is it, then, that they are promising to do? In particular, what are they obligated to do under circumstances like the present, when the Constitution of the United States is under unprecedented and concerted assault from a lawless presidency? (Or even if there is a reasonable suspicion — and who can honestly deny this much — that the Constitution is in need of defense?)

They have obligated themselves to defend the Constitution — and the promise they make is complete and without any room for exceptions, without any room for allowing any other consideration to overrule it.

A politician — looking at the play of political forces currently in the United States — might judge that it would be political suicide to defend the Constitution against the present assault upon it, and he/she might be right.

But the oath says, that doesn’t matter, Other considerations are completely irrelevant. An oath has been taken — not qualified in any way — to defend the Constitution, and so the oathtaker is obliged to defend the Constitution even at the cost of his/her political career, if that’s what it takes.

Just as the honorable knight is prepared to die in the defense of the king, the honorable Member of Congress must be prepared to commit political suicide in defense of the Constitution.

The word “utmost” appears in various forms of such oaths. And accordingly, defending the Constitution in a partial or half-hearted manner — defending it just “up to a point” — is a failure to honor the oath. If the Member of Congress sees the Constitution under threat, the Member is not only obliged to support measures to defend it, not only obliged to take all possible measures to defend it, he/she is obliged to strive to the utmost of his/her powers to defend it.

To do anything less is to break the oath. And to break the oath, as we have seen, is to betray the sacred order that is invoked in the oath, it is to commit a kind of treason against the political order, and it is to invite punishment from the highest sources (political and/or religious) of moral order.

Just as the Members of Congress cannot allow the president to get away with his assault on the Constitution, so also we the citizens of the United States cannot let the Members of Congress get away with their failure to honor their oath of office.

That last statement points answers the objections I have heard that, in stressing the importance of the oath, I am making an unwarranted assumption that the people taking these oaths — i.e. our Members of Congress — have a conscience and/or care about the sacred realm they may invoke when placing a hand upon the Bible to swear to defend the Constitution.

Although it would certainly help if the Members of Congress did have a conscience and did take seriously the sacredness of their oath, that’s in no way necessary for the success of the “You Swore on the Bible” strategy.

The strategy of “You Swore on the Bible” is not one of a private communication, in which an appeal to conscience is made. It is an entirely public statement, intended to apply pressure on the Members of Congress by affecting how they are perceived — and thus also how they are regarded — by their constituents.

These people get elected to Congress by persuading the public that they are upright, patriotic, God-fearing people. How can you be God-fearing if you break a promise made before God — if you can commit “a crime against God” — and think nothing of it? How can you be a patriot if — by violating your oath of office — you indifferently commit a treasonous act? How can you be upright if your promises mean nothing?

It all hinges on whether the American people can be roused to take the oath of office seriously, and to see how thoroughly and dangerously these politicians are violating that oath. 

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